Martin's Minority Government in Crisis

IT MUST BE TORTURE FOR PAUL MARTIN TO LOOK BACK. On Feb.

Martin's Minority Government in Crisis

IT MUST BE TORTURE FOR PAUL MARTIN TO LOOK BACK. On Feb. 2, 2004, when his government's first Speech from the Throne was read by Governor General Adrienne CLARKSON, the new Prime Minister, who had for so long looked like he could do no wrong as finance minister, seemed on the brink of fulfilling a political destiny. Martin promised to inject new life into Canadian democracy, solve the problems of the health-care system, restore Canada's stature on the world stage. A week and a day later, Auditor General Sheila Fraser released her searing report on the sponsorship program. Since then, Martin's aura as a leader of destiny has been replaced by the cloud that hangs over those politicians - the Joe CLARKs, John TURNERs and Kim CAMPBELLs - who seem fated for frustration.

The scandal bequeathed to Martin by Jean CHRÉTIEN, his predecessor and bitter rival, is bad enough in itself. What makes it worse is the way the affair casts into sharp relief Martin's own shortcomings. With new accusations hurled against his Liberals daily, the party could use a leader capable of throwing stinging rhetorical counterpunches - but Martin is often a flat-footed House debater. With Justice John Gomery's inquiry serving up juicy revelations with the regularity of a well-scripted daytime soap, the PM should be trying to steal some ratings with bold action - but his style tends more toward long deliberation. "This government has never had enough snap, crackle and pop," observes pollster Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos-Reid Public Affairs, "to give people the impression that they would be losing anything if it was voted out of power."

The prospect of that happening, perhaps in a June election, now looms large. Last fall, when Gomery was holding hearings in Ottawa, the past and present government officials who testified cleared up little about what had really happened under the sponsorship program that operated, mostly in Quebec, from 1997 to 2003. But when the hearings shifted to Montreal this year, the tone changed radically. Advertising executives have testified about millions flowing in the most dubious fashion, sometimes in scenes that sound more like the stuff of mob movies than the workings of a federal plan to boost Canada's image. "Money in envelopes on restaurant tables and all that," says Bricker. "It's very easy for people to understand."

Understanding that what went on was terribly wrong is one thing. But for voters, deciding who should take the fall for it might turn out to be more complicated. Or, at least, so Martin must hope. He casts himself as the new guy who came in after the shady dealings that went on during Chrétien's watch and launched the inquiry. The problem is that Canadians have vivid memories of Martin as the second most powerful man in Chrétien's government, a Liberal titan with his own extensive political network. Three recent polls left little doubt many voters, at least for now, are in no mood to give Martin a free pass for what went on under his former boss.

Blending those Ipsos-Reid, Ekos Research and Environics polls, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, at Wilfrid Laurier University, projects that of 308 seats in the House, Conservatives would now win 114, up from their current 99. The Liberals would be reduced to a humbling 88 MPs, down from the 135 they returned in last June's election. The NDP would rise to 42 from just 19 now, while British Columbia's Chuck Cadman would continue to sit as the loan independent member. Perhaps most disturbingly for many Canadians, the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS' total would climb to 63 seats from today's 54, leaving just 12 Quebec Liberals in the Commons.

The prospect of separatists so overwhelmingly dominating Quebec guarantees one major aspect of a Martin spring election strategy: he would run as the champion of national unity. So Conservative Leader Stephen HARPER must take pains to avoid seeming to be in cahoots with Gilles Duceppe's sovereignists. Last week, the Bloc backed away from using its turn to set the House agenda - on what's called an opposition day - to force a non-confidence vote. Harper had said his party wouldn't vote with the Bloc, declaring that he refused to let the separatists set the election timetable. It would have been the first chance for the opposition parties to bring the roof down on Martin's minority since the most damaging Gomery testimony came to light. Some Parliament Hill insiders have circled May 19 on their calendars as the next Tory-controlled opposition day when the party might be willing to prompt the vote that would defeat the Liberals. If that happened, Canadians might go to the polls on June 27 - a year less a day since the last election.

During that time, the Martin government has often seemed stuck in neutral. Since the intense behind-closed-doors bargaining that produced last fall's health accord with the premiers, the Prime Minister has never again seemed like a man with a mission. In an interview with Maclean's late last year, he candidly admitted that he had been forced to learn on the top job how to focus on just a few priorities. He vowed to be more disciplined about using his personal power to advance selected initiatives. Yet the one file he said would get his unbroken attention, foreign policy, has been a glaring problem. The government's promised sweeping international policy review was repeatedly held up, apparently by wrangling between advisers in the Prime Minister's Office and mandarins in the Foreign Affairs department.

Other key policies haven't fared much better. The Liberals campaigned last year on a promise to deliver a major new national child care and early learning program. Social Development Minister Ken DRYDEN seemed to be making progress toward a deal with the provinces, but failed to hammer out the necessary agreement to put the plan in place by the time of this winter's federal budget. In that late 2004 interview, Martin described how he planned to dive into key files - singling out child care as an example - when his clout was needed to close the sale. But when Dryden ran into resistance on finalizing a daycare deal, there was no sign of any prime ministerial surgical strike.

One problem is Martin's tendency to trust processes, rather than exercising more direct personal control. He set up a raft of new cabinet committees, including an operations committee that meets twice a week and often serves as a top-level forum for very lengthy policy discussion. His close coterie of long-time loyalists is widely seen as Ottawa's most exclusive debating society, not an efficient decision-making machine. But Martin's penchant for fostering discussion is praised by his fans as evidence that he takes ideas seriously. And some have pointed out that his willingness to give up direct control, to allow a process to find answers, was what led him to set up the Gomery inquiry itself. Still, detractors see his style as one reason his government can't seem to build momentum.

It hasn't helped that Martin's inexperienced ministers have had a steep learning curve to climb. Unwilling to keep veterans of the Chrétien era in his cabinet, he appointed untested rookies to key posts, even in sprawling departments, such as former hockey player and executive Dryden at Social Development, and former B.C. forest products businessman David Emerson at Industry Canada. And the paucity of political skills in Martin's cabinet has been evident as the going has gotten tough. Ministers in prestige portfolios have not emerged as tough combatants in the sponsorship fray. Instead, the Liberals have relied heavily in the House on Public Works and Government Services Minister Scott Brison, the Nova Scotian who defected from the Tories in December 2003 and mixes it up in classic East Coast form during Question Period. Outside the Commons, Quebec MP Françoise Boivin, a previously little-known backbencher, has stepped forward as a pugnacious defender of the battered Liberal brand.

But with an election bearing down on them, Liberals know they need more than a couple of good scrappers. The government is trying to shift into gear. Two major announcements last week suggested a new sense of urgency. Environment Minister Stéphane Dion unveiled the government's long-awaited plan to implement the Kyoto climate change treaty. And John Godfrey, the minister of state for infrastructure and communities, made the first of an expected string of announcements on the so-called new deal for cities.

On at least two more key fronts, the bid to shake off the months-old sense of inertia will continue as early as this week. That much-delayed foreign policy review is finally expected to be released. More likely to attract attention, and spark controversy, will be a move soon to take on some provinces over health services that Ottawa says are being sold in violation of the Canada Health Act. "British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec - those are the three provinces where I think there are issues with respect to diagnostic imaging," Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said last week. He plans to trigger a dispute-settlement process to try to force those provinces to put a stop to MRI scans offered outside provincial insurance plans. "We'll be ready to go pretty soon," he added.

And by soon, he clearly means before the expected campaign. Confronting the provinces will help Martin portray himself as the champion of public health care - and Harper as its enemy. It worked well for him in last year's campaign. But this time around, it may be more difficult for the Prime Minister to divert attention to anything other than the scandal. No national campaign is about a single issue, but this one could end up having the starkest ballot question since the 1988 election over free trade. Harper will be framing it as a question of Liberal corruption. Martin faces the tougher task of persuading Canadians that the misdeeds of only some Liberals are at issue.

This week, the Bloc and the Conservatives will try to shift the focus to two of Martin's closest confidants. Opposition MPs successfully pushed to have the House public accounts committee subpoena Terrie O'Leary, who was Martin's chief of staff when he was finance minister, and David Herle, co-chairman of the 2004 Liberal election campaign, to answer questions about public opinion research contracts that went to Earnscliffe Strategy Group, the powerful firm that served as Martin's brain trust when he was finance minister. Exactly what Bloc and Tory MPs are fishing for is unclear, but they will surely aim to broaden the cast of Liberal players under suspicion beyond the Chrétien-linked figures being probed by Gomery.

Much will depend on how close the scandal encroaches on Martin and his circle. Last week, Harper pressed the Prime Minister repeatedly over inquiry testimony that suggested Martin had once lunched with Claude Boulay, president of Groupe Everest, one of the Montreal ad agencies caught up in the affair. Martin clumsily dodged the question for two days, before finally issuing a flat denial. So far, only tenuous links have been drawn between the figures at the heart of the scandal and Martin or his Montreal organization. Though several of the main players in the sponsorship program were undeniably close to Chrétien, it was no secret that Chrétien's political machine feuded with Martin's and the two Liberal factions rarely overlapped.

Even if Martin and his crew are never shown to have been involved, he will still face charges that they must have heard about wrongdoing and failed to act to stop it. But Scott Reid, Martin's director of communications, argues that the more lurid the picture of corruption painted at the Gomery hearings, the more plausible it is that the perpetrators would have gone to great lengths to keep their scams to themselves. "When people are doing that, they're not usually in the business of advertising it," Reid said. Even when they are in the advertising business.

No doubt, criminal acts and secrecy go together. It adds up, though, to a tough line to sell the Canadian voter: the worse this scandal looks, the more believable it is that Martin never caught wind of it. But then again, there is no easy message, no obvious campaign theme, for the Liberals. They must crawl out from under the worst scandal in memory, correct a lethargic governing record in short order, convey a message of reform through a Prime Minister and a cabinet woefully short on effective communicators. If casting back to the days when Martin appeared golden is painful for Liberals, facing the job ahead could be worse.

Maclean's April 25, 2005