Paul Martin's Election Pronouncements

They do politics differently in places where it actually matters. In Ottawa, we tend to surf contentedly on assumptions born from prosperity: that policy is boring, that hard choices are a downer, that only personality can sell papers.

Paul Martin's Election Pronouncements

They do politics differently in places where it actually matters. In Ottawa, we tend to surf contentedly on assumptions born from prosperity: that policy is boring, that hard choices are a downer, that only personality can sell papers. But Paul MARTIN began his second week of campaigning at a radio station in St. John's, Nfld., on a brutal rainy Monday morning. He soon learned that in a place where government can make the difference between lighter and darker shades of grief, the questions tend to be more pointed.

Martin's host on VOCM Radio, Randy Simms, didn't waste a second on the subjects that normally transfix the Bytown gallery (Is Peter staring at Belinda? What are the "optics" of this or that?). Instead, he worked hard to pin Martin down on a checklist of local desiderata. The whole process was amazingly businesslike and unsentimental, as shakedowns often are.

Would Martin extend custodial management to the fisheries on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks, shooing away foreign fishing boats even more than 200 miles offshore? Would he help pay for the Lower Churchill hydro development? Couldn't he build up the Canadian Forces base at 5 Wing Goose Bay? "Obviously you currently hold 8½ per cent of Hibernia, as an asset to the Canadian government," Simms said at one point. "You've made a lot of money on it. We'd like to have it now."

The barrage of requests would have brought an ordinary man to his knees, but Paul Martin is made of sterner stuff. There is no known request he can't kind-of seem, briefly, to be sort-of fulfilling. The Lower Churchill? "This is really up to the province. But does the federal government want it to go forward? Yes, we do." Custodial management? "I think this is a huge problem."

But as the reporters travelling with Martin listened to a live audio feed of his chat with Simms in a boardroom down the hall from the studio, what quickly became apparent was how full of holes Martin's commitments really are. That's going to turn into a theme of this article, so let us begin with examples both light and momentous.

Simms asked Martin about a new study showing that the number of federal government jobs fell far more rapidly in Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1990s than in the rest of the country, even though jobs are more sadly lacking on the Rock. Just look at the federal weather office in Gander, Simms said: almost completely shut down in 2003.

Martin seized on the mention of weather. "Look," he said. "Whether it's weather testing, whether it's ice services - take a look at the weather outside today! This is where the study of weather ought to take place in this country.

"I think this is the kind of area where you've got to have centres of excellence. Obviously in Memorial [Newfoundland's only university]. But I really do believe that what we've really got to do in Newfoundland and Labrador is to understand the huge weather patterns that are taking place... There is a real understanding of the weather that could only come from a place like Newfoundland and Labrador. So what I think is that this is where it ought to be studied."

It was hard to shake the hunch that Martin had taken off on weather because it was raining. It was hard to shake the hunch that if Martin had been serenaded by a barbershop quartet that morning, he would be calling for an international centre of excellence on four-part harmony.

"I gotta get you to expand on that," Simms said. "Are we going to be seeing a return to public forecasting out of the Gander weather office? Or a place of excellence that's centred on climate change that's out of Memorial? What is your vision?"

The radio host must have thought he was asking an either-or question. He was mistaken. "That's exactly what it is," Martin said, incomprehensibly. "I believe that what's happening with global warming, and what's also happening, given Newfoundland's special place geographically, that what there has to be are, in fact, centres of major study on weather patterns. On ice. Weather testing. And I couldn't think of a better place for it to be than here."

Canada should be "achieving excellence in everything," he said. "And one of those areas is weather."

So that's one shaky commitment. If 2,000 civil servants who used to work across the province no longer do, build an excellent weather centre. Or, failing that, talk about one.

The second stretcher wasn't long coming. Simms started to wrap up their chat. "I know you don't have a big lot of time and we can't get you to take any calls this morning. We're still gonna try to get you to do that one day..."

Martin was quick to bite. "Hey, I would really like to do it."

Simms, no fool: "All right. When?"

"Ah... ho-ho..."

"Before Jan. 23? Let's get you to commit to it."

"Uh...

"Now."

"Y'know, that'll be a little hard," Martin managed. "Uh, but I would like - listen, I would very, very much like to do it. By the way, for a prime minister of the country, this kind of thing - taking the calls directly - is by far the best thing I can do." And with that he left, without having done the best thing he could do, or committed to doing it later.

Back at the media filing room at the Delta Hotel, I steered a wary path around the opulent late-morning snack buffet - the Grits will feed us six times a day if we let them - and called Brad De Young, an oceanographer at Memorial University. What's this about a climate-change centre of excellence?

It turns out Memorial is actually trying to put such a centre together, De Young told me. They've invited applications for Canada Research Chairs in the relevant fields. "We're trying to expand our program interest around climate change." And how much help have they had from Ottawa for that? Well, De Young and his colleagues actually came up with a plan to combine Memorial's efforts and those of a renewed Gander weather office.

And? "That didn't happen."

Oh. That's not so good.

"There isn't a centre for climate change and meteorology at Memorial," De Young said. "And there are no plans for one in the near future."

I suggested that maybe Martin had concocted the excellent-weather plan to get out of a tough question. De Young had no opinion on the matter, but offered: "From our perspective, we would be interested in helping him out of that corner if it would help us get something useful done. We're easygoing people out here."

This is what happens when you follow Paul Martin around for even a little while on the campaign trail. You hear no end of grand pronouncements. Sweeping commitments. Stirring appeals. And then you take a short stroll and peek behind the curtain and you discover that Oz the Great and Terrible is barely there. All that's there is a guy putting on airs. I have spent most of a year steering clear of the Prime Minister whenever I decently could, given the unfortunate reality of my employment as an Ottawa political columnist, because I took an early dislike to his huffing and puffing and I did not want to torment him or bore my readers. Last week was a bit of a reunion. I was quickly reminded how easy Paul Martin is to like and how hard he is to believe.

"You know," the Prime Minister told the St. John's Board of Trade a few hours after the VOCM interview, "it matters. It matters who you choose to lead the country, and what they believe." Over the course of his lunch speech he would repeat the words "it matters" 14 times.

And what does Martin believe? Oh, various things. He doesn't like Stephen HARPER's proposed GST cut. "It'll save you about 50 cents on a toaster." In contrast, under the Liberal tax plan, "every single penny goes toward cutting personal income taxes because that is what will work best for working families." A telling contrast. Also untrue. Billions of dollars' worth of pennies will go toward cutting corporate taxes, too.

After the board of trade speech, we convened in a small room for a scrum. One reporter asked Martin about his astonishing comment the previous week to the effect that this will be an "élection référendaire" in Quebec, an election with the force to settle the question of Quebec secession. It is an extraordinarily reckless position to take when the separatist Bloc Québécois commands over 50 per cent of voter support.

"Well, first of all, it's not me who is doing it," Martin said. "It's the duo of [Parti Québécois Leader André] Boisclair and [Bloc Leader Gilles] Duceppe. They're the ones who said it's the first phase of the referendum campaign. I'm just quoting them. I'm just quoting them."

And what does he do when his adversaries say something absurd? Jump right in: "If that's how they see it, we'll fight on that basis." So if Boisclair and Duceppe announced that Canadians would be electing the next prime minister of Spain on Jan. 23, apparently Martin would start campaigning in a lispy Castilian accent.

With that we left St. John's for Saint John, N.B., in Martin's campaign plane - a chartered Boeing 727, laden with yummy foodstuffs, that lands by flopping onto the runway like a trout, routinely bouncing at least once. In the gym of the local YM-YWCA, about 20 small children sat on the floor, looking bewildered. A Liberal campaign staffer handed them little Canadian flags. They cheered right up.

"Mr. Harper says he doesn't favour government-supported child care," Martin told the crowd. "A Liberal government will make our commitment to child care permanent." How? By doubling the amount of money allocated to Ken Dryden's child-care and early-learning agreements with the provinces. And, just to be on the safe side, by doubling the length of the program.

That's right. Instead of spending $5 billion over five years, Martin was announcing $10 billion over 10 years. His new commitment does not take effect until 2009 - almost certainly after the term of the government we are about to elect. Before long he may extend his commitment to $48 billion over 48 years, or $162 billion over 162 years.

"We're talking now about the future of our country," Martin told reporters afterward. "It's our children. We're talking about an investment in a child. It's impossible to say no."

I guess it depends which child. By the Liberals' own account, their plan would create 625,000 daycare spaces over five years - rather smaller than the total number of Canadian children in daycare, and far smaller than the total number of Canadian children. It's Stephen Harper whose plan would say yes to every Canadian child under 6, or more accurately, to their parents. Martin would provide bigger unit payments by saying no to lots of children. You may argue that Martin's is the superior plan. You cannot argue that it is what it isn't.

On Wednesday, Martin gave a blandly hortatory speech to the UN Climate Change Conference in Montreal, a global meeting to begin designing a sequel to the Kyoto accord on greenhouse gas emissions. He opened yet another news conference by reading a statement that would take little time to come back to haunt him. "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I'd say this: there is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it."

It was a striking choice of words. A "conscience" is normally understood as a sense of one's own responsibilities. But Canada has increased its greenhouse gas emissions by 24 per cent since 1990, the United States by only 13 per cent. If the U.S. had been as profligate over the same period as Canada, it would have spat an extra 662 million tonnes of carbon products into the air last year. That's more than Britain's total emissions in 2003. The gap between Martin's remarks and the truth is as big as Britain. Usually when a politician utters a whopper, you can't actually give the whopper a name. But you can name this one. You can call it Britain. Say hello to Britain, the whopper.

After visiting Montreal, Martin stopped in Toronto to announce a total ban on handguns. Well, not total: the ban would exempt gun-club members and, for five years, collectors who would then have to join gun clubs. The same two groups are exempted today from a near-total ban that has been in place for decades. And individual provinces would have a right to opt out. That's going to be a bit tricky, because if you can obtain handguns in even one province, then unless you plan to station border guards between the provinces, you might as well try to ban clouds.

In the space of a single week, Martin had skated himself offside the truth on climate studies, phone-in calls, referendum elections, tax policy, daycare, handguns, and, ironically, given the rest of it, gaseous emissions. And as the week progressed, the SES tracking poll for CPAC showed the Liberal lead over Harper's Conservatives steadily widening. We have a soaring dollar, low unemployment, and millions of voters who have decided they just don't like Stephen Harper. Paul Martin may simply be incapable of sabotaging his own career. But give him credit for trying.

Maclean's December 19, 2005