Martin's Agenda Full of Risks

TESTIFYING AT THE SPONSORSHIP inquiry last week was billed as an unwelcome chore for Paul MARTIN. There was the indignity of being the first sitting prime minister since Sir John A.

Martin's Agenda Full of Risks

TESTIFYING AT THE SPONSORSHIP inquiry last week was billed as an unwelcome chore for Paul MARTIN. There was the indignity of being the first sitting prime minister since Sir John A. MACDONALD to be grilled by a commission probing a scandal, and the awkwardness of having to explain how, as finance minister in Jean CHRÉTIEN's regime, he failed to notice massive misuse of sponsorship money. To make matters worse, Chrétien had put on quite a show at the inquiry just two days before - a tough act to follow. Yet there's another way of looking at Martin's day on the stand: a nice change of pace. The issues he might otherwise have been attending to are extraordinarily divisive. From same-sex marriage to missile defence, global warming to daycare, his government is plunging ahead with an unusually risky agenda.

Since the Gomery commission is preoccupied with events from the 1990s, Martin was able to discuss how he operated as finance minister - one of his favourite subjects. In those days, he was at his goal-oriented best, focused solely on taming the federal deficit. But as Prime Minister, he has yet to prove that he can master the far wider range of issues that demand his attention. Aside from last fall's health accord with the provinces, he has few election-worthy accomplishments so far to point to - a risky position for a prime minister heading a minority that could fall on short notice. That makes next week's federal budget even more important than usual. Finance Minister Ralph Goodale, in the key supporting role Martin played for Chrétien, must allocate the money needed to jump-start a more activist phase for this government. The Liberals' long-promised push for a national daycare plan and an ambitious set of environmental measures are expected to score new funding.

But these two thrusts highlight the risks Martin faces. Social Development Minister Ken DRYDEN met last week in Vancouver with his provincial counterparts to try to advance a deal on child care and early learning. The core of Dryden's policy - $5 billion over five years, mainly targeted at high-quality daycare spaces - is not an obvious winner. Quebec and Alberta are resisting any deal that smacks of Ottawa setting standards. The reaction of Canadian parents is a potentially bigger problem. A Statistics Canada report last week showed that 47 per cent of kids from six months to five years old have a stay-at-home parent. Of those being taken care of by somebody else, 31.5 per cent were with a relative, up 41 per cent over six years. That compares to 25 per cent in daycare centres, up 26 per cent in the same period.

Why the bigger numbers and faster growth in kids being looked after by relatives? A recent Vanier Institute of the Family study found that parents rank daycare centres behind having a stay-at-home mom or dad or a grandparent care for young children. Those numbers suggest Dryden can hardly count on automatic voter approval for his vision.

On environment policy, the pitfalls have less to do with popular reaction than a possible clash with powerful companies. Goodale has signalled that his budget will take steps to meet Canada's greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto climate change agreement. Environmental groups have high hopes. "We're expecting incentives for consumers to buy hybrids and highly efficient cars," says Sierra Club of Canada policy adviser John Bennett. Environment Minister Stéphane Dion, displaying the feistiness he was famous for as Chrétien's designated bulldog on Quebec issues, is pressing car and truck makers to deliver an overall 25-per-cent emissions reduction. Sources say auto companies are trying to satisfy Dion with a plan of their own, raising the spectre of a messy showdown with some of Canada's biggest employers.

Only one major policy file seems to have been wrapped up neatly in recent weeks. John Godfrey, the infrastructure and communities minister, announced on Feb. 1 how $5 billion over five years - a share of the federal gas tax to support municipalities - would be divided among provinces and territories. The money will flow to cities and towns for projects from mass transit to sewage treatment. Most municipal leaders are happy with the deal. All that remains to be seen in Goodale's budget is how the $5 billion is spread out over the five-year period.

Far more problematic are two issues that have less to do with cash than convictions - same-sex marriage and missile defence. Gay marriage legislation is slated to come up for debate in the House this week, and Liberal officials said they expect Martin to lead it off with a key speech. Government strategists are not inclined to impose a time limit on the debate - so a long torrent of rhetoric is likely. Whether a similarly heated debate on George W. Bush's missile shield program will ever happen on the floor of the Commons, though, is uncertain. Powerful voices in the government want to sign on to the U.S. plan, but Martin faces too much opposition among his own MPs to have any confidence of winning a vote. Rather than proposing Canadian participation and risking the House's rejection, insiders say the Prime Minister may now be looking for a way to step back from the controversy. With as many balls in the air as Chrétien carries in his briefcase, Martin might have to let this one fall.

BEYOND A STUNT

BY NOW THE image of a supremely confident Jean Chrétien displaying golf balls at Justice John Gomery's inquiry into the sponsorship affair is firmly planted in Canadian political lore. In case anybody is still mystified about the subtext, Gomery had told a journalist that Chrétien's allowing his signature to be emblazoned on $1,200 worth of customized balls, bought at public expense when he was prime minister, was "small-town cheap." So when Chrétien opened a briefcase at the hearing to show off his collection of similar souvenir balls given to him by, among others, several golfing U.S. presidents, pundits credited him with having pulled off a brilliant stunt. Yet its significance was not widely discussed.

In his ill-advised pre-Christmas interviews, Gomery made several controversial statements - notably that he regarded the sponsorship program as a catastrophe. While it was strange that he would express that view so bluntly in the middle of his commission's work, his remark about Chrétien's golf balls, though more offhand in tone, was arguably much more injudicious. After all, Gomery appeared to reveal a disdain for Chrétien's style that is unrelated to the misspending of public funds that he is charged with unravelling. By so effectively firing back, Chrétien underscored the slight. Now, if Gomery's final report pins any blame for the affair directly on Chrétien, it is inevitable that such a finding would be read, at least by some, in the context of a tension between these powerful men that goes beyond the facts of the affair. It's personal.

Maclean's February 21, 2005