He is the very model of a modern Canadian Liberal
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 November 2003)

His words seem simple enough, yet Paul Martin remains, even this late in his career, a puzzle. He is said to be "a man of ideas" --Denis Smith, a distinguished professor of political science, described him that way in the Toronto Star a week ago. Yet no one, least of all Martin, can explain exactly what his ideas are. He expresses himself far better than the prime minister he's replacing, but what does he express?

His long campaign to unseat Jean Chretien has left us no wiser on this question than we were when the revolution within the party began, an age ago. Martin believes in balanced budgets, he believes in competence and he believes he should be prime minister. Beyond that, someone trawling his speeches to catch his thought will come up empty.

He favours a more democratic Parliament, in which backbench MPs won't be nonentities, but that's the sort of thing people talk about before they take office; it will impress no one till he can credibly say, two or three years from now, that he's made it work. It's like paying more sympathetic attention to the provinces, which everyone favours when out of office and which Martin currently preaches with an optimism that cheerfully defies history: "Alberta and Western Canada have got to be at the national table. The days when the federal and provincial government priorities are different is over and the days of confrontation are over." He's made exactly one absolute promise to the provincial premiers: more meetings.

Items like these typically sit near the top of the agenda before a government forms, stay there a while and begin sliding toward irrelevance about 10 minutes after the first crisis appears. Martin also seems to think Ottawa should take some responsibility for the health of the cities, and for that the mayors love him. He's promised them a big meeting, and they hope for money with no political strings attached, which is always an impossibility. Federal intervention may or may not help the cities (there are serious experts on cities who doubt it) but in any case no one classifies a jurisdictional shift as a new idea. These are administrative plans, not governing ideas.

Pierre Trudeau came into office looking for a staff of "new guys with new ideas," but nobody even remotely answering to that description has been spotted in Martin's entourage. Today, of course, U.S.-Canada relations are so poisoned that "let's make a tiny effort to get along with the Americans" might be considered by some Liberals a brilliant new concept, maybe even shocking. Others will consider it an urgent necessity. In any case, it won't require genius, just civility. David Jones, a former American diplomat who served in Ottawa a few years ago, recently put it this way: "All Martin has to do is behave normally." That's OK. Martin can do normal.

Does he have opinions of his own? Or does he rely for views on option-filled policy papers in which the bumps have been so ironed out that nothing even slightly interesting appears? His close associates argue that his true individualism couldn't emerge when he was finance minister, because Cabinet solidarity came before individual views. And he couldn't emerge as an individual MP after he left the Cabinet, because then he was at the mercy of Jean Chretien, who was considered quite capable of calling a snap election if Martin expressed radically divergent opinions.

Now, Martin will be free. But he also won't be, because, as prime minister, he will have to bear in mind all those conflicting interest groups he's spent a decade cultivating. Perhaps those waiting to hear his ideas will wait forever. He may not, in fact, have any that he wants to share. And if he does have striking thoughts to communicate, he will probably so muffle them in bureaucratic language that no one will notice. His speeches in 2003 recall the poem in which F.R. Scott defined the reign of Mackenzie King: "He skilfully avoided what was wrong/Without saying what was right,/And never let his on the one hand/Know what his on the other hand was doing."

All agree that Martin is a good manager or knows which good managers to hire, which is much the same thing. One point comes through: He quickens to process more than to results. He's fascinated by how things are done, a characteristic of managers. If he possesses even trace elements of spontaneity, he hides them from the public, which managers believe is what you do with spontaneity.

Managerial skills have the inborn fault of being developed to deal with yesterday's problems. The issues that define a prime minister's career tend to be unpleasant surprises, like the 1995 Quebec referendum that nearly sank Chretien and Canada. The record so far indicates that Martin doesn't deal well with the unexpected. He's a bit of a ditherer. (If he's truly indecisive, spare a moment of pity for the agony he'll soon endure when choosing a Cabinet and necessarily disappointing an army of MPs who believe erroneously that they are about to put Hon. in front of their names.)

Martin had a surprising amount of trouble deciding which way to jump on Chretien's Clarity Act, and on same-sex marriage he's been less than lucid. He doesn't react well when blindsided, as he was in August, 2002, by Chretien's shock-horror announcement that while he was indeed resigning, as requested, he was also staying on for another 18 months, which at the time sounded like eternity and in fact has proven to be not far short of it.

It's often been recounted that it took Martin and his handlers four hours to respond to Chretien's sly-old-fox trick, which is about three hours too long. In truth, Martin hasn't yet clearly commented on that I'm-leaving-but-I'm-staying ploy, in the sense of saying what it meant and what he thought of it.

But we know at least one thing for sure about the prime-minister-to-be: He's totally, unquestionably a Liberal, in every sense of the word. He's the embodiment, the beau ideal and the very quintessence of Canadian Liberalism. If entered in an Extreme Liberal competition, he would win the gold.

He ticks off all the boxes. Like four of the last five Liberal prime ministers, he's a Catholic lawyer. Like most of them, he has enough personal wealth to ensure independence. Except for Lester B. Pearson, Liberal prime ministers entering office in the last half-century have come in only two economic sizes, wealthy or well-to-do. He's in the first.

And, as a good Liberal should, he straddles all categories. Classic Liberalism, developed in the days when Paul Martin's dad was a minister, brought government-loving big business under the same tent with the government-dependent poor. Martin, while rich, doesn't neglect to note the plight of the homeless, etc. Moreover, he's a bilingual Quebecer with strong Ontario roots and an easterner with a deep interest in the West. He's an Ottawa Man who claims to love provincial premiers. Businessmen consider him a businessman, and technocrats think he's a technocrat. He's everything all at once, which means he's Liberalism as it exists in the mind of God -- or, in secular terms, a designer Liberal, cloned from party DNA.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page