Angry Mister Nice Guy
The last prime minister’s memoir displays contradiction, not candour
Paul Martin and his friends and acolytes have always insisted that what drives the man is not politics but policy. True, his early years were framed by politics, the child of a famous father whose talent and taste for shaking hands and garnering votes made him almost a caricature. Anybody here from Windsor? On the Sunday mornings when Paul Sr. was not travelling the world, he and Paul Jr. would make the rounds of the local parish churches to shake hands, to see and be seen. Good to see you. How have you been? How are the kids? And how’s the wife?
So that’s the journey. An impressive kid in privileged circumstances, a big money job through his father’s connections, he makes it on his own in a business environment that is not made for comfort, and he dutifully attends while those who once professed to be friends read the last political rites for his father. Paul Sr. was gone, but it was a while before Paul Jr. admitted that he was interested in the succession.
That interest in the succession is important. Martin did his best to shrug off any interest in politics in that period when he had just bought control of Canada Steamship Lines. In fact, he totally denied any interest. Yet the diary of the father faithfully records his son’s declared eagerness—not just interest in politics but in the perhaps-soon-to-be-available job of Liberal leader and prime minister. He told his father he wanted Pierre Trudeau’s seat in Mount Royal.
That, of course, is not reported in these memoirs. It is the kind of revelation that Martin and his team of researchers and writers would not think perhaps appropriate to his role as an apparently reluctant leadership aspirant. Martin does not declare ambition and as a result appears almost a dilettante, except that the ambition was too obvious to deny.
Martin reports that when John Turner was stepping down from the leadership of the Liberal party after the 1988 election, Jean Chrétien was the logical choice to succeed to the leadership. So Martin had to explain why, as a member of Parliament for a scant few months, he should contest the leadership, even though Chrétien, as a veteran parliamentarian, was a 100-to-1 favourite.
It would have been preferable if he had simply admitted he was ambitious, but that might have seemed coarse: “There is always room for more than one candidate in any race, and sometimes with a combination of luck and pluck, the under-dog actually wins. Was it hubris for a barely elected rookie MP to begin thinking about the leadership of the Liberal Party? I like to think of it differently.”
If Martin had acknowledged to himself and his party that a challenge for the leadership would be overweening hubris, he might have saved himself and the party much grief. At least he is candid in his admission that “I had never been one to dally over taking an opportunity when it presented itself, for they rarely re-occur. And after the 1988 election, there was an opportunity—and I took it.”
It would not have been pretty, but if Paul Martin had permitted himself candour in his judgement of Jean Chrétien, he might have produced a dazzling book. Instead, he pulls his punches and plays Mister Nice Guy. The best that can be said is that his distaste is unmistakable: “For all that our political careers eventually became entwined, for good as well as for ill, Jean Chrétien and I never really knew each other very well … I thought he was a nice guy.”
The difference, of course, was that Jean Chrétien did not try to be a nice guy. Whether either man was a nice guy or not is probably immaterial. The point is that Martin tried to seem to be a nice guy, Chrétien did not.
So when Martin’s faithful followers tried to organize a putsch against Chrétien at a Toronto airport hotel in 2000, the finance minister could not bring himself to acknowledge any responsibility for what was done in his name. It was all a terrible misunderstanding. But in his own memoirs, Chrétien pulled no punches—the incident persuaded him to stay and fight another election: “I was damned if I was going to let myself be shoved out the door by a gang of self-serving goons.”
Goons may be harsh, but the significant over- sight in Martin’s memoirs is his relentless campaign for the Liberal party leadership, a post clearly occupied by a leader who was not ready to step aside. From even before he was first elected to the House of Commons to the day that Chrétien announced he would step aside, there was about Martin and his gang a sense of entitlement. He deserved to be the Liberal leader, and Jean Chrétien was a rube.
That implies more overt hostility than is apparent at least in Martin’s recollections. Martin’s distaste is inescapable but it is at least couched in language that is civil: “Jean Chrétien and I had a personal relationship that ran the gamut from cool to non-existent … the frigid river between me and the prime minister.”
When Chrétien was finance minister, Trudeau undermined him to the point at which Chrétien was almost destroyed. Martin knew this and cited it to explain why Chrétien would defer to Martin even when he thought his finance minister was wrong on budget disputes.
On those questions Martin permits himself a certain generosity to his rival:
We only won the battles we did because the prime minister decided to allow me to charge ahead, despite his many reservations and those of the people around him. It was Jean Chrétien’s absolute resolve to back me up as finance minister that enabled us to accomplish what we did. I am proud of our accomplishments together, which were the product of a partnership. But his support did not mean that he shared my feelings of urgency about the fiscal crisis; nor did it mean that the strain didn’t tell, and tell deeply on both sides.
Chrétien also supported Martin in disputes with other Cabinet ministers over cuts to their budgets when Martin was leading the fight to eliminate the federal deficit. Chrétien did not agree with the spending cuts Martin was demanding and various ministers appeared to be readying a rebellion. When it got to Cabinet Chrétien stepped in: “Let me say just one thing before this goes any further. There’s no need for any of you to come and see me, and there’s no need to debate this here. I support the minister of finance.” And that was the end of the discussion.
If Martin was grateful to the prime minister for that support, there was another role of Chrétien’s that will never be forgiven. When he stepped down as prime minister, Chrétien left behind the sponsorship scandal, in particular the report on the scandal by auditor general Sheila Fraser. Rather than make public the auditor general’s report while he was still in office, Chrétien adjourned the Commons so that the report would be Martin’s first order of business as prime minister.
The evidence suggests that Martin had nothing to do with the sponsorship scandal and knew nothing about it. Chrétien excluded him from any Liberal affairs in Quebec. As he said, “my organization in Quebec was barely tolerated by the party there. The Little Sisters of the Poor would have known about the scheme before I did. Those who were involved were my political foes.”
Martin’s anger is understandable. Sponsorship will forever be what is remembered of his time as prime minister. Small wonder that “it drove me crazy that I had to deal with this leftover mess when there were so many more important issues I had come into government to confront.”
There is something poignant about that invocation of so many important issues he had gone into government to confront. That is Martin’s policy over politics, and why he got into politics. That is why he can write excitedly about a five-hour conversation with a research scientist, why he writes with equal excitement about schooling for aboriginal kids or the African Development Bank, the Congo rain- forest or his pet project of expanding the G8 club of nations into a G20.
At a guess that is also why there are people who signed up to work for Martin 20 years ago and why some of them are still around.
But of course there were too many elements of politics that intruded. In Martin’s own little black book of politics will be the name of Giuliano Zaccardelli, until two years ago the commissioner of the RCMP. Zaccardelli was responsible for the unprecedented revelation of the RCMP investigation into the possible leak of planned changes in the taxation of income trusts. For the government in the midst of an election campaign, the effect was devastating. Martin permits himself to wonder whether the incident was an act of ineptitude or malice, and concludes that nobody can be that inept.
Martin also wonders whether the income trust fiasco was payback for his decision to launch an investigation into the arrest and detention of Canadian Maher Arar and then his “rendition” to Syria where he was imprisoned and tortured. Martin complains that after he became prime minister he could get no explanation about the case from the RCMP or CSIS. Instead of an explanation he got contradictory information about the role of Canada’s security services: “It was muddy, very muddy.”
Martin and his wife, Sheila, subsequently tried to organize a Christmas party at 24 Sussex Drive for the RCMP officers who served on their security detail. Zaccardelli forbade the party because it would be improper fraternizing.
Such nuggets are rare. Except when he is paying handsome tribute to those who worked with him over the years, Martin stays away from people. With his team of researchers and writers, and hours and hours of interviews, he was determined to write history worthy of a historian rather than the memoirs of a combatant in the political wars.
It is doubtlessly naive to observe it, but there is not even an acknowledgement that there was a Martin leadership team whose task was to get rid of Jean Chrétien. This is not a minor oversight. Chrétien had led the Liberals to three election victories and his government had managed significant triumphs, none greater than Martin’s elimination of the deficit.
Martin’s thoughts on the formation of the G20 forum of finance ministers and his promotion of a comparable group of heads of government is of some interest in certain limited circles, and is no doubt worthy. But forcing a successful prime minister from office is of perhaps rather greater interest and might even serve as a useful how-to guide for future Liberal leadership hopefuls.
The fact of the matter is that Martin has only a limited interest in candour, or perhaps it is better expressed as an interest only in limited candour.
There is a temptation to suggest that it would have been useful if Martin had tried from his own perspective to explain why his government failed as signally as it did. It was not for lack of good ideas: think only of child care and Kelowna, both unravelled by the Harper government.
More obvious was the lack of new ideas and energy. The Martin people were good at getting rid of Chrétien but they did not know what to do when that job was done. Martin himself was exhausted; he had been campaigning non-stop since he was forced from the Chrétien government, first to unseat Chrétien, then to quell the sponsorship explosion, then to win the election.
I interviewed Martin two weeks after the 2004 election and the 90-minute interview was almost useless because the man was so wired that there were almost no complete sentences to be pulled from the transcript. Three priorities became five became endless. His managers ought to have tried to manage him.
From his time as prime minister there will be some satisfactions for Martin to contemplate, but I can only imagine how profoundly bitter and angry he must be.