Paul Martin's Stunted Imagination

One year on, do we have a prime minister yet?

By Murray Dobbin 21 Dec 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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When I decided to write a book on Paul Martin I wasn't aiming at a biography -- just a political profile so that Canadians would know something about their apparent next prime minister. But I guess I expected that along the way I would discover what made him tick. Collecting all the stuff of his careers -- quotes, decisions, opinions of others, the people he chose to associate with -- and then work backwards to discover his essence: that which drove him to relentlessly pursue Canada's top job.

But I never found it.

I concluded that it wasn't there to find and instead tried to find out why. The answer began simply enough. Paul Martin was a corporate CEO for many years before he ever got involved in politics and thus entered politics with no operational set of values other than expediency. He was the quintessential CEO whose actions were dictated by the single minded pursuit of the bottom line.

That's common to all CEOs -- as CEOs. But other corporate figures have entered politics and demonstrated some core essence. Even Brian Mulroney, who loved to please the powerful, was genuinely moved by the plight of Africa. But nothing seems to actually move Paul Martin. It's as if that part of our prime minister just never developed, like a limb that atrophied.

Hollow drifter

When he made political speeches, of course, it sounded like he had a vision, especially during the Liberal leadership campaign: "This leadership race is about the future and the changes we need to make as a country. It is about embracing new ideas and charting a new course. I want to lead a new government with a renewed sense of purpose...."

But these, it turns out, were the words of Hollowman. There was no substance. Now there is just drift in the direction that is easiest, unfettered by principle, affected only by the hard political facts on the ground, a minority government. This is true even in the area where Martin did hint at substance: creating a bold new role for Canada "in the world."

In Iraq, Martin had the opportunity to build on what Canadians have become increasingly proud of: the fact that we did not join this criminal bloodletting. But did Martin state that he was with the people of Canada? No. When asked by CNN if Canada would consider sending troops to Iraq, Martin said we didn't have enough. Pressed on whether he would not or could not send troops, Martin repeated his answer, implying that he would send them if we had them.

In Haiti, Martin shamed Canada by joining a US-led coup against the elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide, a kind of Iraq-lite that he obviously hopes will not be noticed by Canadians. Martin recently hosted a conference of some 400 of Haiti's diaspora élite living in Canada, aiming to legitimize puppet Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. No principle discernable here, just the worst kind of real politic in the interests of "investors."

Dancing on heads of missiles

On missile defence again the prime minister could have stood on principle and with the majority of Canadians who know this scheme won't work, is irrelevant to Canada's security needs, threatens to start a new arms race, is designed even in its rudimentary stage as a potential offensive weapon against foreign satellites, and is based on the absurd premise that a country would willingly commit mass suicide by attacking the U.S. Paul Martin has not yet joined the coalition of the idiots. But his constant dancing around the issue is so embarrassing that even if he does eventually stay out, he will get no credit for it, because it will not be a principled decision.

As if to underline just how close Canada is getting to George Bush's disastrous policy in the Middle East, Martin has indicated that Canada will now move closer to Israel in the struggle that is pivotal to peace in the region, and key to convincing Muslims world-wide that the West is not at war with Islam. This move is unforgivable opportunism especially at a time when Palestinians are looking for reassurance from the West that choosing a moderate for their new President might actually lead to peace.

Paul Martin and his group of hard ball, loyal advisors spent so long achieving power that they lost their capacity to imagine how to use it; that is, how to govern a nation. Ironically, it is the minority situation that has led to Paul Martin's only public policy successes: medicare and child care. Ironic, because these initiatives were taken not on principle but, again, in the interests of political power.

Is one year to soon to judge? Perhaps. But if Paul Martin ultimately fails to make a significant mark as a Canadian prime minister it will be due to his failure of imagination. A man with no essence is obliged to look to others for substance. Usually, that is a recipe for mediocrity.

Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee. He is author of Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?

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