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Martin, Man of Mystery

Paul Martin has had his eye on the Prime Minister's Office for decades. Yet no one seems to know what he'll do with it.

By Monte Paulsen 29 Jan 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is a certified energy advisor. He helps homeowners and homebuilders save money and cut carbon emissions. He works in collaboration with City Green Solutions.

Monte wrote for The Tyee between 2005 and 2010. While at The Tyee he reported on affordable housing and green building. Links to his work can be found below.

He has also written for numerous newspapers and magazines including Canadian Geographic, Vancouver Magazine and The Walrus.

And he is a co-author of Beyond the Deep: The Deadly Descent into the World's Most Treacherous Cave (Warner Books, 2002).

Email Monte or follow him on Twitter.

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Shared Vision

Paul Edgar Philippe Martin was born to accommodate his father's ambition. Literally. In August of 1938, a Windsor physician "encouraged" the son's birth so that the father could sail to Geneva as part of a Canadian delegation to the League of Nations. 

"It was not the first time and it would certainly not be the last that Martin family life would be dictated by the imperatives of politics," notes author John Gray in Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition (Key Porter), the most introspective of three new books about the Prime Minister. But like Murray Dobbin's Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? (Lorimer) and Susan Delacourt's Juggernaut: Paul Martin's Campaign for Chrétien's Crown (McClelland & Stewart), Gray's book fails to satisfactorily answer the obvious question: Now what? 

"The answer lies somewhere in the conflict between the quite conservative instincts of the son and the quite radical instincts of the father who remains his inspiration," suggests Gray, a longtime reporter for The Globe and Mail.

Man of habits

Martin Sr. grew up poor, clawed his way through university, won a seat in Parliament, and stayed for 40 years. He transformed the Liberals into this nation's dominant party, and stitched together the quilt of social programs that define modern Canada--to itself and the world. A self-styled reformer, the elder Martin achieved every major goal he set for himself - except one: despite repeated bids, he never became prime minister. 

Martin Jr. grew up comfortably in Windsor and Ottawa, coasted through university in Toronto, and was handed a high-level job at Power Corp. He patched up unprofitable enterprises for five years, served as president of Canada Steamship Lines for eight, then bought the shipping firm with $180 million of other people's money. He was elected to Parliament in 1988, served as finance minister for a decade, and recently rose to fulfill his father's ambition. 

All of which is precisely what makes him so enigmatic. Having raised a healthy family, accumulated vast wealth, grasped visible power and fulfilled his father's dream: Now what, indeed? The Paul Martin revealed in these books appears never to have rested long enough - or never suffered hard enough - to have openly contemplated the question. Gray concludes: "If the ambition is clear, the values that underlie it are less so."

Martin does have habits, however. Like tells in the poker-faced game of running for office without appearing to do so, three old habits hint at future actions:

1. Money matters most

Though he excelled at the campaign art of promising nothing, the former finance minister habitually pledged a thriving economy. For Vancouver journalist Murray Dobbin, a research associate at the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, this is the problem habit. 

"Our government in Ottawa is charged with defending the interests of the nation," Dobbin writes. "Yet, under the direction of Paul Martin, the word 'nation' was rarely heard. Canada is now an economy." 

Dobbin details what the other two speed through: As a businessman, Martin fired workers, shuttered facilities, registered ships overseas and otherwise did whatever was required to boost profits. Likewise, as finance minister, he cut social spending, cultural programs, environmental protection, farm subsidies, foreign aid, health care and otherwise slashed whatever else he deemed necessary to reduce the federal deficit. Dobbin concludes, "Martin more resembled a CEO restructuring a large conglomerate… than he did a political leader with a positive vision for building the nation."

2. Set low expectations

Making problems out to appear worse than they really are is Martin's oldest habit. "Under-promise" and "over-perform" were the watchwords of his tenure as finance minister

"If there's error, there's only error in one direction," Martin warned his finance staff in a speech cited by Gray. Referring to his work at Power Corp., Martin explained, "I approach it the same way every time: I go to the bankers and make out the worst possible case; it's depressing; they all lower the value of it, and they say they didn't realize it was all that bad, and two years down the road I've fixed it up--partly because it was never quite as bad as I told everybody--and it looks like I was a saviour. That's how we're going to approach this." 

(He also has a reputation for verbally berating underlings who failed to respond to such directives. His staff called the routine incidents "beatings," and most bore them like badges of honour. But at least one victim subsequently offered to resign. Martin responded in shock. He had no idea how deeply his tantrums caused others to suffer.) 

3. Leave it to the Martinites

 

Martin's most dangerous habit, however, is his blithe attitude toward his team. This attitude is on display throughout Susan Delacourt's exquisitely reported book. Delacourt covers leadership politics for the Toronto Star, and her book oozes detail.

The Martinites come to life on Delacourt's pages, and they come off like  players in a CBC remake of The Sopranos. They bonded during Martin's unsuccessful 1990 leadership campaign, and carried on an undeclared campaign on his behalf for the next 13 years. Swirling about them is a whole generation of ambitious Canadian politicians, handlers and journalists who've hitched their personal destinies to Martin. Held in check by Chrétien for more than a decade, their latent idealism devolved into petty zealotry.

After reading all three, I found myself less concerned about Martin than the Martinites. These are books I'll keep, if only to refer back to in the event Martin's reign ends the way US President Richard Nixon's did, with a nation asking, "What did the Prime Minister know, and when did he know it?"


Former Washington D.C. correspondent Monte Paulsen edits the book review section in Shared Vision magazine. This piece will appear in the new issue, distributed free throughout the Lower Mainland beginning February 1, 2004.  [Tyee]

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