Martin Fired from Cabinet

Stories about Paul Martin always seem to contain an element of frenetic activity or plain haste. There's the one about what amounted to his first date with Sheila Cowan, a friend of his younger sister.

Stories about Paul Martin always seem to contain an element of frenetic activity or plain haste. There's the one about what amounted to his first date with Sheila Cowan, a friend of his younger sister. Martin, then a University of Toronto law student, took her on a breakneck drive to a cottage. "Paul claims I sat the whole way clutching the door," she reminisced a few years ago. The guy didn't just drive fast. To Sheila, he always seemed to be "flying in and flying out" of rooms. They were married in 1965, a few years after he gave her that memorable lift to the lake, and, in the classic way of political wives, she remains a discreet but formidable force in his career.

Then there's the tale of how he became a rich man. After learning the ropes of business as a Young Turk in Paul Desmarais's empire, Martin plunged into a deal to buy Canada Steamship Lines from the Montreal mogul in 1981 - a high-risk, debt-financed takeover at a time of punishing interest rates. He made the gamble pay off. Tony Chesterman, a close friend who was later tapped by Martin to run the company after he went into politics, remembers him as a blur of an executive, always working, sweating the details down to maintenance problems with his ships' steering systems. "He always made me feel tired and kind of lazy," Chesterman recalls.

Accounts of the way Martin threw himself into politics offer more of the same. The Liberals who signed on for his long-shot leadership run against Jean Chrétien in 1989-90 remember it as a flat-out, full-bore, wildly over-optimistic affair. After Chrétien thumped him, and went on to win the 1993 election, Martin became his rival's finance minister, charged with whittling down the deficit. But if Canadians came to view him as a stolid fiscal disciplinarian, insiders who watched him on the job at close quarters got to know his less methodical, more mercurial, qualities. "He's determined, motivated, but I wouldn't necessarily say focused," long-time Martin adviser and strategist Mike Robinson observed back in the days of the deficit fight. "Sometimes his mind does wander off in new directions if he hears something that interests him."

How strange, then, that at age 63, this man who has always seemed in such a hurry and so easily distracted has waited so long for a shot at the same, single goal: 24 Sussex Drive. Last week, after the tumultuous turn of events that saw him finally split with Chrétien and exit cabinet, Martin wasn't revealing much about his mood. Every informed opinion of his character, though, suggests he must be relieved to finally have the prolonged waiting game over. While his political persona is more nuanced than Chrétien's well-earned image as a political street fighter, Martin's friends see their guy as a scrapper too. They are waiting for the old pedal-to-the-metal, risk-taking, brass-ring-grabbing Martin to re-emerge. "I can tell you, he's tough as nails," Chesterman told Maclean's last week. "A real bulldog."

Still, it wouldn't do to launch a full frontal assault on Chrétien. What's called for is something more sedately prime ministerial. Martin signalled last week that a few carefully timed speeches to frame his policy vision are in the works. This is tactical, of course - positioning himself as the thinking Liberal's alternative to a sitting prime minister often called managerial, never visionary. Striking the Man of Ideas stance would also satisfy Martin's self-image. And like so much about him, this aspect of the way he likes to see himself goes back to his defining relationship with his father. Inevitably, if Martin is about to really take on Chrétien, the battle will be read in large measure as the last chapter of a devoted son's quest to fulfill a worshipped father's potential.

The late Paul Martin Sr.'s career is the stuff of Liberal lore. He was a cerebral cabinet minister in the governments of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Lester B. Pearson. He ran losing bids for the Liberal leadership in 1948, 1958 and finally in 1968, by which time he looked sepia-toned beside the tie-dyed bloom of Trudeaumania. Paul Jr. worked his heart out in that last campaign, and took his father's defeat hard. He insists, though, that he didn't acquire a sense of destiny about going all the way for the old man's sake. (Who wants to be saddled with such a Shakespearean motivation?) Yet his political yearning seems never to have been a secret. Chesterman says even Martin's impressive, almost compulsive, rise in business was always in aid of a deeper political aspiration. "One was a means to the other," he says. "He'd obviously seen a lot of people in politics having to raise money all the time."

So Martin would enter the political arena in the 1988 election with plenty of money to go with his Liberal pedigree. He never shied from laying claim to his father's activist brand of politics. The senior Martin was at the centre of the explosive post-war growth of government. He was deeply committed to federal expansion into social programs; by threatening to resign from cabinet, he forced St. Laurent to introduce national health insurance. When Paul Martin Jr. was making the party rounds in the early 1980s, doing the spadework for his move into politics, his evocation of his father's legacy caught the imagination of Liberal activists. He embodied the party's powerful pro-business strain and was direct heir to its social conscience. "Everybody thought he was flawless," remembers lawyer Richard Mahoney, an early Martin enthusiast who has emerged in recent years as a powerful Liberal backroom figure.

Martin was not, of course, flawless, but there remains something uncanny about how his credentials line up perfectly with just about any Grit strategist's dream-candidate wish list. Social heart and economic head - check. Effortless bilingualism and a perfectly bilingual name - check. Boardroom clout married to grassroots credibility - check. No wonder his loyalists have waited, and waited, for their next chance. They'll never get another thoroughbred like this one to back.

Sure bets, however, are no more certain in politics than they are at the track. Often, party pros, pundits and other handicappers are humbled by unlikely winners - a little-known Little Rock smoothie, say, or an underrated Shawinigan brawler. And while Martin is long on qualifications, he's short on natural magnetism. His early political oratory was often awful; only through dogged, diligent work has he turned himself into today's reliable podium performer. Even now, his speeches are solidly constructed, not liable to catch fire. So Liberals like him. They admire him. They think he could win them landslides. But they don't show signs - at least not yet - of loving him.

A potential problem for Martin, as he sets out to define himself as the more forward-thinking alternative to Chrétien, is his failure so far to put his stamp on any inspiring Big Ideas. Last week, Chrétien's aides were derisive about Martin's claim that it was a deep divide over the government's mission - not a raw clash of ambitions - that led to his sudden rupture with the Prime Minister. In fact, their recent policy spats don't look worthy of tearing apart a governing party. There was the matter of Martin wanting to let the provinces off the hook for billions in federal overpayments, while Chrétien was determined to recoup the extra transfers dished out because of an accounting mistake. But that's bookkeeping, not the politics of conviction. And Martin tried to set up an arm's-length foundation to handle new federal infrastructure spending in the last budget, before Chrétien overruled him to have the program run directly by John Manley. Again, not exactly a cause to send true believers to the barricades.

Martin strategists insist their guy would have been more inspiring in recent years if he hadn't been under the rule of an "incrementalist." They argue that Martin, who likes to lug home big policy tomes to read, has felt constrained about expressing his ideas. It's true that in areas Chrétien doesn't really care about - notably international financial institutions - Martin has shown flashes of original thinking. He has persuasively pushed for new rules to allow countries facing financial ruin, most recently Argentina, to restructure their debt. But impressing policy wonks at the International Monetary Fund won't get him far with Canadian voters. And when it comes to key issues that might have resonated on the home front, his track record is uneven.

He has missed some plum chances to show policy boldness. With the deficit tamed, there was room for new economic priorities on the federal agenda in 1999. But even though Martin was the government's marquee name on the economy, it was Manley, then industry minister, who grabbed hold of studies showing Canadian productivity badly lagging behind U.S. performance. Manley made the issue his own. Suddenly, he was the cabinet voice identified with boosting Canadian competitiveness. Martin was left looking reluctant to admit there even was a problem - and forced to play catch-up when the consensus around Manley's view became overwhelming.

Even more unsettling for some Liberals was Martin's reluctance to throw support behind the Clarity Act in the winter of 2000. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, Chrétien's hand-picked Quebec point man, drafted the gutsy law to set rules for any future Quebec secession referendum. Martin was in the cabinet camp that worried the legislation would stir up anti-Ottawa passions in Quebec. No such backlash materialized. Instead, sovereigntists' fortunes continued to sink steadily - and Dion's legislation could go down in history as a rare case of courageous policy-making from Chrétien. Among the Prime Minister's Quebec strategists, the episode reaffirmed their old suspicion that Martin was soft on separatism.

If Martin has yet to show punch on policy beyond the deficit, he cannot be doubted as a heavyweight in political organization. The crew he assembled more than a decade ago has stayed loyal, matured into a peerless machine, and built support the hard way - riding by riding. Martin has travelled tirelessly for years to help out Liberal MPs at fundraising events and win their gratitude. Even though he jumped into politics comparatively late, he brought a deep-seated respect for the unglamorous labour of constituency work, learned - where else? - at his father's knee. "What I would do a lot with my dad is travel the riding with him," he once reflected. "I went to church picnics, that kind of thing. That's one of the ways that we stayed close, my dad and I. He was a tremendous constituency politician. He probably as much as anyone built the modern constituency organization."

It's this legacy that will matter most if Martin is to subdue Chrétien in the ground war before a leadership review vote next February. In his set-piece speeches until then, Martin will try to prove that his restless intellect has finally fastened on a few potent policy notions. In the trenches, though, what will count are the years of relentlessly criss-crossing Canada to build his base. Martin has always been a man and a mind in motion. The question now is whether a lifetime of momentum can carry him just a little farther - through the barriers that Chrétien will now erect to stop him, and over the goal line his father never managed to cross.

Thinking Outside the Box

Anxious Liberals apparently feel that Jean Chrétien has been getting, as one said, "very poor advice" in the confrontation with now ex-finance minister Paul Martin. So, just to be helpful, Maclean's canvassed opposition party strategists - no strangers to internecine strife - to see how they'd advise the Prime Minister and Martin in the unfolding pursuit of power. Of course this advice comes without the slightest tinge of partisanship.

Conservative Senator Norm Atkins, who ran Brian Mulroney's campaigns in the 1980s and also brother-in-law Dalton Camp's party battle to depose John Diefenbaker in 1966:

If I were advising the Prime Minister, I would be saying what you've got to do is finesse some of the people who are working against you by bringing them into the tent somehow.

If I were advising Paul Martin, I would tell him: take the high road, don't be the catalyst that creates problems for the PM at this stage because that's going to happen anyway. And above all else don't resign your seat. He has such a strong show of support in the caucus, being in the House can only help.

Rod Love, a political consultant and former chief of staff to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day:

There is nothing fancy about this. There is a Liberal leadership review in February and this is a ground war that is going to be won or lost in 301 campaigns at the constituency level. Overtly, Martin doesn't have to do anything as long as his people on the ground do their business. It's tougher for Chrétien. He's got to win and he's got to win big and that's going to be hard because Martin owns the apparatus. He's the one who's been around the country doing all the organizing.

For Chrétien, the key is the caucus. He has got to get on the phone, explain the whats and the whys, and ask for advice. That's how Klein and Mulroney were successful. Stockwell lost his caucus. That then gets down to the constituency level and that means delegates.

Rick Anderson, a former Liberal turned adviser to Reform party Leader Preston Manning, and Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day:

If I were Paul Martin, I'd want to be perceived as the person ready to succeed Mr. Chrétien, rather than the one seeking to depose him. But this is also a golden opportunity for him as a backbencher to speak out on issues like Canadian security or the environment, and start rounding out the public impression of what a Paul Martin government would look like.

If Chrétien really wants a fourth term then he's got to go to the ridings and make his case. But I think he will find that well is going dry. If he's really asking 'give me the dignity of picking my own time to depart,' well, he's asked that before and people have said yes with increasing reluctance. Now he will need a trade-off: he'll have to put a date on that, at least quietly to key people in the party, and run the risk of becoming a lame duck.

Tom Long, chief campaign strategist to former Ontario premier Mike Harris:

If you are going to go after a guy like Chrétien, don't wing him. That's the same advice I'd give Chrétien now. They've both put themselves in a position where they've got a wounded, pissed-off guy on the other side. Chrétien's big advantage is that he's still not in a bad position to win another election because the Tories and Alliance stubbornly refuse to face reality and join forces. But Chrétien will never get back to the point he wanted, which is to walk out a bigger winner, with his party solidly behind him and having surpassed everybody's expectations. He'll be known as the guy who had to go through a series of bar fights to keep his job.

For Martin, given his age and station, his shot is now. So I don't feel he's got a lot to lose by being direct. Which he hasn't been so far. He rambled on the other night about whether he was fired or quit. If he wants to lead he's going to have to call a spade a shovel. The next six months will be very important because the public mind is opening on Martin in a different dimension than it has over the last nine years.

Maclean's June 17, 2002