Martin Survives Confidence Vote

PAUL MARTIN has a new political persona: classic Liberal survivor. It's not the first time he has switched identities.

Martin Survives Confidence Vote

PAUL MARTIN has a new political persona: classic Liberal survivor. It's not the first time he has switched identities. For years he was a vague presence on the edge of the Liberal party's collective imagination, intriguing because he possessed both a shipping company and the name of his famous politician father. Plunging into politics, he came to acquire a double image - tough rival to Jean CHRÉTIEN and determined slayer of the federal deficit. When he finally ousted Chrétien, he tried to rebrand himself as historic change agent. That one never took. Then his party was rocked by scandal, he ran an uninspired election campaign, and looked unsure of how to get anything done with the minority he was left to lead. Playing a weak hand as prime minister, Martin was in danger of being recast as incurably indecisive and ineffectual.

But now, after his springtime scramble to stay in office, he is being viewed in yet another light. First, he cut a politically risky budget deal with the NDP. Next, he shocked the country by strolling into a news conference with Belinda Stronach in tow. And, finally, he won the House vote that those two audacious moves were designed to secure for his Liberals, narrowly avoiding an election. Along the way, allies and enemies alike began to talk about him in new terms. Here's Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, although it could be just about any frustrated Tory: "He's shown he's willing to do absolutely anything to stay in power." And here's Scott Reid, the Prime Minister's director of communications, from the insider's vantage point: "He has a new identity - most resilient politician of our generation."

Scathing or admiring, it amounts to the same thing: Martin is starting to be regarded as a true heir to the savvy Liberal ways of old. The party and its federal bosses have long been credited with uncanny survival skills. Sprawling over the ideological centre, drawing equally on corner-office clout and immigrant-community energy, the party is notoriously tricky to pin down. William Lyon Mackenzie King, the quintessential modern Liberal PM, led the nation through the Second World War - yet is remembered mostly for his sly, if-necessary-but-not-necessarily, governing style. Pierre Trudeau is a hero to many as the father of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - yet Liberal insiders are as likely to remind you of how he bounced back from being knocked down to a minority in 1972 and right out of office in 1979.

Martin's ferociously loyal coterie of aides and advisers is acutely aware of all this lore. Within two hours of the Liberals winning last week's nail-biter test in the House on the budget - which went down to Speaker Peter Milliken casting the tie-breaking vote in the government's favour - Reid was recasting Martin in historical terms. He sees him now as reminiscent of early King or Trudeau in middle age. And it isn't King's caution or Trudeau's charisma Reid has in mind - it's the dogged determination of both to find ways not to be beaten. "The Prime Minister has been exceptionally toughened by the past year," Reid says. "He has learned how to make things work."

Is there really something in the federal Liberal DNA, something showing up in Martin's newfound resourcefulness, that makes the party unique in the way it seeks and grips power? If anyone has mapped the Liberal genome, it is Senator David Smith, the party's most revered living election organizer. One wall of his Parliament Hill office is filled with photos of him at the sides of Grit heavyweights from the early sixties to the present era. The snapshots are more than memorabilia - they're a study guide. They illustrate a party alternating French and English-speaking leaders. Big-business figures coexist with social-policy innovators. One of a much younger Smith with Walter Gordon, champion four decades ago of left-Liberals, prompts a mini-lecture. Smith recalls how Pearson had to learn to show due respect to Gordon's determined nationalist faction in the party. Some things never change: Martin absorbed the same lesson this year when he had to bow to internal party pressure and not sign on to George W. Bush's missile shield plan.

This tradition of attending to its "progressive" or "social" wing, always wary of U.S. power, is a key to the Liberal party's success. "No enemies on the left," King decreed. Smith describes a "healthy tension" between the party's left and right poles, but says the party's bedrock is "basically small-l social liberals." Martin may be a millionaire shipping magnate who solidified his business-friendly credentials by balancing the books as Chrétien's finance minister, but he was eager to declare himself a "centre-left" Liberal soon after becoming Prime Minister. He was doing more than shoring up the less-developed side of his image. His father, Paul MARTIN Sr., a cabinet minister from King's government to Trudeau's, helped create the postwar social safety net, including medicare - and few doubt Paul Jr. is motivated by a sincere, even fervent, desire to live up to his father's legacy.

But it doesn't take a paternal influence to nudge a worried Liberal leftward. Author Ron Graham has written that, historically, the party has always "lurched hard to the left" when defeated by the Tories. Perhaps even the threat of defeat is enough. The explosion of the sponsorship scandal last winter demolished any prospect of Martin cruising to an easy majority in an election. And the reunited Conservatives - a factor Chrétien never faced - looked again like a viable alternative. So Martin and his team improvised a campaign largely around stoking fears that Stephen HARPER would undermine public health care and generally yank Canada rightward on social issues. In power, Martin went on to reinvigorate the Liberal social-policy tradition, most notably in recent weeks through a series of bilateral child care agreements Social Development Minister Ken Dryden has struck with provinces.

It looked like no great stretch then for Martin to cut a deal with New Democratic Party Leader Jack LAYTON. In return for NDP support in the House on the budget vote, Martin added $4.6 billion to the budget for Layton priorities like social housing and tuition cuts. While those goals are hardly out of step with the Liberals' current bent, a Martin confidant said letting Layton reshape so central a policy blueprint as the budget revealed how much Martin has learned to do what it takes. "I don't think the Paul Martin of 2002 would have even contemplated striking that deal with the NDP," said this insider.

But a willingness to edge leftward, when need be, is only one aspect of the Liberal formula. Stronach's defection suggests quite different elements. One is the gravitational pull of the Liberal elite and its promise of power. Consider the players. An auto parts heiress-turned-politician is the quarry. A former Liberal Ontario premier, now chairman of a major Toronto law firm, flushes her out. The hunt ends over chocolate semifreddo at 24 Sussex Drive with the Prime Minister, himself a millionaire former CEO born to political influence. This isn't the NDP.

And any suggestion that Stronach's ideas, or even her personal qualities, figured in the bargain is hard to sustain. Martin made much of having discovered over dinner that he and she have a lot in common. But the fact is that the deal to give her a cabinet post was cut before their civilized late supper. Stronach's immediate value was the single vote she represented in the House. Her longer-term worth was any damage her defection might do to Harper's outreach to moderate Ontario voters. Whether Martin ended up liking her or not seemed, at most, an afterthought.

Of course, Conservatives screamed that this was old-time Liberal opportunism at its worst. Even a few Liberals privately wondered if the Stronach manoeuvre didn't look too crass. "Some Liberals can be fairly cynical about it," Smith admitted, "but if you asked them, 'Are you glad it happened?' and you hooked them up to a lie detector, I know what the truth would be."

He's right, of course. By and large, Liberals do sound at ease with where they stand. It's the Conservatives who ended last week less sure of the ground beneath them. The new critical appraisal of Martin is that he looks willing to do anything. But the negative take on Harper is that he appears angry about everything. The two embody, at least for the moment, old clichés about Grits and Tories. That Liberals may be slippery, but they're not really scary. That Conservatives may be principled, but they're not quite likeable. A long history of winning shows why Liberals are willing to live with those stereotypes.

BY THE NUMBERS

What do Canadians really think about the country's politicians? The latest Maclean's/Rogers Media poll provides some intriguing answers.

Which federal party leader would most benefit from an Extreme Makeover?

Paul Martin 28%

Stephen Harper 18

Gilles Duceppe 12

Jack Layton 10

All of the above 4

None of the above 3

Don't know/refused 25

If you could take any leader to a movie premiere, whom would you pick?

Paul Martin 23%

Jack Layton 21

Stephen Harper 17

Gilles Duceppe 12

None of the above 14

Don't know/refused 13

In your opinion, which party leader would be most likely to cheat on an exam?

Paul Martin 33%

Stephen Harper 12

Gilles Duceppe 9

Jack Layton 3

All of the above 14

None of the above 4

Don't know/refused 25

SOURCE: POLLARA INC.; SAMPLE SIZE 1,272; MARGIN OF ERROR ±2.7%

Maclean's May 30, 2005