All Hail the Alienator!

Paul Martin says he wants to deal with B.C. alienation. Unfortunately, he's been a significant cause of it.

By Murray Dobbin 13 Nov 2003 |

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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He says he feels our pain. He wants to soothe our fevered brows.

Paul Martin, the newly minted Liberal leader -- and soon to be prime minister -- has of late been turning on his famous charm in "the West." In speech after speech he is promising to deal with western "alienation."

In his October talk to B.C. municipal leaders Martin stated: "Ottawa needs a deeper relationship with British Columbia. There's no question in my mind that B.C.'s sense of alienation is not a myth, that it's real. [T]oo often national issues that arise in B.C. are relegated too quickly to regional concerns only. ... We need to hear from you on health care. From the fisheries and softwood lumber, from transportation to the mountain pine beetle, B.C.'s concerns must be Canada's concerns."

Sounds pretty good -- almost as if Paul Martin is coming out of retirement to fix problems caused by someone else. But Martin never retired. And it was Martin who, as the man in charge of the purse strings, virtually ran the Liberal government from 1993 to 2002. It was Martin who cut the fisheries department by 30 per cent and the transport department by 50 per cent. He slashed the federal contribution to B.C. health care, along with education and social welfare, by 40 per cent. And, of course, it was Martin who destaffed many Pacific lighthouses and gutted the coast guard. He is now asking us to believe that he is the man to solve B.C.'s alienation from Ottawa.

He gets full marks for sheer audacity.

Not so free trade

There is no consensus about just what constitutes B.C. alienation. But one grievance that virtually everyone would agree upon -- from NDP to Alliance to Liberal -- is the outrageous state of trade relations between the U.S. and Canada. Free trade was supposed to give Canadian exporters some genuine relief from the wholesale application of U.S. "trade remedy" laws. These laws are applied in a highly political manner in the U.S. -- with the commerce department repeatedly bowing to pressures from industry groups to immediately impose tariffs and duties regardless of the merits of the complaint. The endless American challenges to our softwood lumber industry are a classic example.

"Free trade" has not given us fair treatment. The Americans called our bluff in the free trade negotiations. They got what they wanted -- guaranteed access to our gas and oil -- and we got, well, screwed. Softwood lumber, hothouse tomatoes, and a very, very slow response in allowing our beef back across the border (conveniently driving up the price of U.S. beef, of course) are just three B.C. examples.

If Paul Martin can't seriously deal with this western grievance, then he can't be taken seriously at all when he says he is going to address the concerns of B.C. What would indicate that Paul Martin offers something more than tired rhetoric? A credible plan to establish once and for all a trade dispute process with the U.S. that results in prompt, final and binding decisions based on the facts of the case at hand.

We need to hear in Prime Minister Paul Martin's first throne speech a real commitment to actually solve the trade issue. (As a courtesy, a suggested throne speech is provided here. Feel free to just feed it into your teleprompter Mr. P.M.)

Martin must show that he is willing to bargain hard with the Americans and risk some political capital in doing so. He needs to use the strong bargaining chip that Canada still has to overcome the obvious weaknesses of the 1988 free trade agreement with the U.S. and the subsequent continental NAFTA deal. Martin needs to play the energy card -- perhaps the only thing that will get the Americans' attention.

If Paul Martin were serious about B.C. grievances, such a throne speech would help prove it. But don't hold your breath. Martin has been trying to ingratiate himself to the powerful Alberta energy companies by beating the dead horse of the old National Energy Program. The likelihood that he will play the energy card to end trade harassment of softwood lumber is very slight. It is a clear as well that another promise Martin has been making -- improving relations with the U.S. -- is not likely to include getting tough on energy.

Meet the new boss…

Of course, how Martin actually addresses Western alienation depends on how he defines it.

What does it mean to say that Ottawa "never listens" to B.C. -- the mantra of the Alliance party? Well, not what the Alliance wants us to think. A recent poll suggests that British Columbians are pretty alienated from the federal government as a result of its use of the budget surpluses to pay down the debt and implement more tax cuts. A Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC) poll showed 63 per cent of Canadians want Ottawa to spend more on health, education and social programs -- while only 24 per cent want debt repayment and 12 per cent want more tax cuts.

But what is Paul Martin planning? Just the opposite, as he revealed in a speech to the Montreal Board of Trade in September. He is going to maintain a tight rein on social spending, and use the surplus to pay down the debt and bring in more tax cuts. (The last time taxes were cut, in the year 2000, 77 percent of the cuts went to the wealthiest eight percent of Canadians.) More recently, his aides stated that Martin's first 100 days in office would be spent cutting every government department (including fisheries, transport, and natural resources).

Martin says he is planning big changes in government -- as if he had suddenly changed his mind about the policies he has already implemented. Those policies were in lock-step with Bay Street. In 1994, the Business Council on National Issues (the 150 largest corporations in Canada) presented Paul Martin with a list of 10 policy priorities they wanted him to act on. He delivered on every one of them. This same powerful group of companies (and/or their individual CEOs) contributed almost $12 million to Martin for his leadership campaign. They will undoubtedly expect something in return. The organization (now called the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) has another agenda to present to Paul Martin. It's called continental integration. Its main plank? Give the U.S. guaranteed and growing access to all our energy, including electricity, and hope that it will be grateful. In other words, give away our biggest bargaining chip.

Far from a change in the way government operates, Paul Martin will deliver more of the same: a compliant stance towards the U.S. to "improve relations," a timid approach to trade disputes, and even more cuts to government services and economic development. In fact, the very things that caused B.C. alienation in the first place.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? published by James Lorimer is in BC bookstores now.  [Tyee]

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