Paul Martin's democratic deficit

While the new PM promises to empower MPs, his record as finance minister and a leadership candidate shows profound disregard for democratic process

By Murray Dobbin 16 Feb 2004 |

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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The new prime minister has received a lot good press with his repeated commitment to end the "democratic deficit" in parliament by giving a greater role to backbenchers. We should be very sceptical about this promise given Paul Martin's reputation-and that of his handlers-as being nearly obsessed with control.

Perhaps Martin really does intend to allow MPs a little more independence. If he does, it will be at best a harmless diversion to draw attention away from the fact that a Martin government, where it matters, will be even more preoccupied with control than its predecessor. At worst it could Americanize Canadian politics by making MPs vulnerable to the powerful and rich lobbying business which is already very influential in Paul Martin's world.

Martin's personal team, a tight-knit family of political operatives, have worked for nearly 15 years to make sure every aspect of Martin's political career is carefully orchestrated. They are mostly housed in the Earnscliffe Group, an Ottawa lobby firm that includes Martin promoters David Herle, Scott Reid and former CBC Ottawa bureau chief Ellie Alboim. Their labouring on behalf of Martin didn't stop at enhancing his stature in the party. The relentless pursuit of power saw the finance ministry and Martin's personal political agenda blended into a single, seamless project.

New standards in secrecy, punishment

The single-mindedness of Martin's team has created new standards in political secrecy, loyalty and punishment for transgressors. That new standard is profoundly anti-democratic, not only in terms of party politics but also as it affects democratic governance. It is an entrenched part of the political subculture around Paul Martin.

Martin's accession to the position of finance minister in 1993 is revealing of just how different our new prime minister is from his predecessor. The leadership fight in 1990 was an extremely nasty affair, with Martin attacking Jean Chretien in a particularly vicious manner long after it was clear that Chretien was going to win. Martin's actions, then as now, were considered by many Liberals to be damaging to the party.

But what did Chretien do? He gave Martin the most powerful post in the cabinet, that of finance minister, a position that made Martin famous and popular. And Chretien made it brutally clear to the rest of the cabinet that Martin was going to have his full support as finance minister-bullying even senior ministers and threatening them with 20 per cent cuts to their budgets if they dared asked for more money.

The contrast with Martin's treatment of his own party challengers is stark and genuinely shocking, even in the nasty world of politics. Sheila Copps did nothing in the leadership campaign comparable to what Martin did to Chretien in 1990. She ran a straight-up, dignified campaign based almost exclusively on policies. For this she is being effectively driven out of her party.

Do Canadians care about party politics?

Of course, this is only internal party democracy and Martin and his political commandos likely calculate the vast majority of Canadians aren't that concerned about what happens inside the Liberal Party. But as the Liberal scandal in B.C. in recent months demonstrates, perhaps they should be.

Even if, in the end, none of these B.C. backroom hardball players is found to have been guilty of anything, Paul Martin is already guilty of allowing his leadership team to engage in the most poisonous conduct in recent Canadian political history. Martinites have controlled the party for years. Their intolerance for any dissenting views or individual aspirations is legendary, but calls by many prominent members for intervention to clean up the process have been studiously ignored.

Martin's operatives were determined to take over every riding association and the end often justified the means. First, there was the now infamous practice of buying bulk memberships for hundreds and even thousands of instant Liberal members to overwhelm the opposition. Then there was the issue of rules about how many membership forms a candidate could get at one time: executive members (virtually all Martinites) could get unlimited numbers; others only five at a time.

No one was immune-not even cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal. It was almost impossible to be neutral. If you weren't an enthusiastic Martin supporter, you could expect to be branded an opponent. According to former B.C. provincial Liberal MLA Paul Warnke, himself the target of the backroom "Basi Boys'" organizing tactics in a nomination race, "The entire executive, which was a Martin executive for years, not only knew of the problems....  They did nothing about them."

Contempt for cabinet colleagues

And what about the Martin-style of democracy in government?

Once it was clear that he had a virtual carte blanche as finance minister, Martin could have dealt with the deficit in any manner he wished. The process he picked was just as ruthless and contemptuous of colleagues as the behaviour of his supporters in the party.

Each cabinet minister was invited into what became known as the Star Chamber. Martin presented each with a one-page document with three columns, indicating how much the minister would have to cut from their budget in each of 1995, '96 and '97. Some cuts were huge-up to 60 per cent. There was no discussion, no debate, no round table of cabinet ministers discussing priorities. In fact, according to his junior minister Doug Peters, Martin didn't even bother going to cabinet meetings because he didn't like the conflict. 

In addition to his autocratic style with his cabinet colleagues, much of the finance department's policy development was even further removed from democratic governance through Martin's contracting it out to the Earnscliffe Group-the same bunch in charge of advancing Martin's political career. Not only did Martin show little democratic regard for his cabinet colleagues and their policy priorities, he effectively privatized finance policy-making to the same firm that was lobbying the department on behalf of its large corporate clients.

There is a democratic deficit. But it's centred in Paul Martin's camp and is one deficit Mr Martin seems unwilling to take on.

Vancouver journalist Murray Dobbin's Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? was published last fall.

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