Paul, We Hardly Knew You
Prime Minister Martin surprised many last night when he announced during his concession speech that, while he will continue to represent the constituents of his Montreal riding of Lasalle-Émard, he would not lead the Liberals into the next election. Most political pundits agree that such a decision is usually announced in the days following an election defeat, but that he stepped down last night with grace and dignity, probably mindful that the infighting among Martin and Chrétien Liberals had greatly contributed to the party losing its grip on power.
I agree that Martin had no choice but to vacate the party’s leadership. However, I have to confess that, although I have never cast a ballot for the federal Liberals, I never disliked Martin as much as many on both the left and the right. Granted, I was annoyed by his hyper-cautiousness in taking a stand on sensitive issues before he became prime minister, for fear he would jeopardize his rise to the top job. However, I felt that when he finally made up his mind, I saw no reason to distrust him; he certainly seemed far more thoughtful and statesman-like than his predecessor. He did not lack passion and intellect. Unfortunately, as prime minister, he will probably be remembered as a man of many words and good intentions, but of indecisiveness and little action. His record as finance minister, however, will not be dismissed so easily. I don’t deny that the early austerity measures he took, which eventually led to eight consecutive surpluses, shifted the burden to the provinces and effectively created the so-called “fiscal imbalance” that was talked about so much during the election campaign. But the fact remains that Canada now has a promising economic future and it is possible again to continue building this country — prudently, within our means. (One quote from Harper today — “we start rebuilding this great country” — leaves me perplexed, because last I checked, no one has been saying that this country is in shambles.)
Was Martin the architech of his own demise? Yes, I think so. His appointment of Judge Gomery to look into the sponsorship scandal, coupled with his insistence that the Liberals under his tutelage were different Liberals, were gambles that didn’t pay off for him. He obviously knew that he had nothing to hide and, indeed, Gomery did exonerate him of all wrong-doings. But the message that his “team” was different didn’t stick, and all Liberals were demonized as corrupt during this campaign. Consequently, I believe an essentially honest man took the fall for a few bad apples within his party.
But while I’m willing to refer to Martin as an essentially honest man, I don’t mean to imply he was above partisan pettiness within his own party. He rewarded those who were loyal to him as he ascended to the PMship and unceremoniously ditched those whose only “crime” was that they had been loyal to Chrétien, or that they dared to contest his leadership. His rise to the PMO was anything but graceful and dignified.
In the end, Martin’s legacy might be more to his party than to the nation. The next leader of the Liberals will be able to claim that his or her predecessor, Martin, wasn’t linked to past Liberal scandals and whipped the country’s finances back into shape. “I will always be at the service of the party,” Martin said in his concession speech last night. So, by stepping aside as leader, his service to the party at this juncture was to allow it to renew itself and build some distance from the sponsorship scandal. That’s another big gamble, mind you. If the Liberal leadership race is messy, or if the Liberals choose an uninspiring leader, or if the Conservatives manage to keep their socially conservative backbenchers on their best behaviour (i.e., quiet) during this minority government, Canadians might just give the Conservatives a majority next time around. And if that happens, then this country will change fundamentally for the worse because all those social conservatives won’t stand for being restrained any longer.
Speaking of succession, I don’t get how Michael Ignatieff, of whom I think it’s safe to say most Canadians haven’t heard of, is being touted as a contender. Frank McKenna, on the other hand, ……