Flashback Friday – Paul Martin
Today’s Flashback Friday is not very much of a Flashback, per se, but rather a look back to what feels like a decade ago. Five years ago today, Paul Martin was fighting a losing battle. His minority government had survived less than two years, before it was toppled, and the Canadian electorate was brought to the polls once again. Dissatisfied with a Liberal party which has tarnished its reputation, Canadians tossed out Martin and his government, in favour of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. On election night, once it was clear that he would not be returning to 24 Sussex Drive, Martin immediately resigned as Liberal leader, taking responsibility for the defeat. Thus ended the leadership and political career or the Right Honourable, Paul Martin, Canada’s 21st Prime Minister.
Paul Martin had enormous success during his eighteen years as an MP. However, by the time he finally wrestled the reigns of power from Jean Chretien, Liberal support had been exhausted and the country turned on a man whose greatest fault may have been his timing. He is perhaps best known for his time as finance minister, where he skillfully eliminated Canada’s forty-two billion dollar deficit. He then orchestrated the coup that pushed Jean Chretien from office, before he was ready. While he was awarded a minority government in June 2004, he was unable to capitalize on the resources available to him as Prime Minister and was defeated in 2006.
Martin was born in Ontario in 1938. His father, Paul Martin, Sr., was an MP as well. Martin Sr., was an MP from 1935 to 1974, and as such Martin did not know a lifestyle where his father was not in Ottawa, or busy with constituency events. Martin Sr. served in the cabinets of King, St. Laurent, Pearson and Trudeau and ran unsuccessfully for the leadership of the Liberals on three occasions. Most of his upbringing was done by his mother. Martin was educated at a french immersion school, which his parents felt was important, since the family lived in southern Ontario, near Ottawa and Quebec. Martin was a well liked athlete in high school, and attended the University of Toronto, graduating in 1962 with degrees in philosophy and history, he then went on to study law, at the same university.
Before entering politics, he was quite successful in the business world. He worked with the Power Corporation of Canada in Montreal and later served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The CSL Group Inc. In 1981, Martin and a business partner purchased CSL. In simple terms, CSL is a shipping company. In 1988, Martin was elected to represent the riding of LaSalle—Émard. He felt an obligation to honour his father’s legacy, and the two held views that were quite similar. Martin noted that his father was of the same generation as Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, and admired the former Saskatchewan premier.
In 1993, Martin was selected as finance minister, despite the frosty relationship that had existed between Martin and Chretien following the 1990 leadership convention. Many saw Martin as the appropriate successor to John Turner, but during a nasty leadership campaign, Chretien ultimately won. The Chretien and Martin camps never forgave each other, and it was no secret that Martin would pursue the job once Chretien vacated it. As finance minister, Martin (despite reports that he had little financial knowledge) erased Canada’s debt and presided over several surpluses. He gained a lot credibility because of how capable he was in this role.
By 2000, it was evident that Martin was becoming restless. He began to set in motion the removal of Chretien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. Martin had slowly been recruiting allies within the party. It began with those who opposed Chretien and his ideas, and by the time of the 2000 election, Martin controlled most of the Liberal machinery. In 2002, Martin left Chretien’s cabinet, declared his intention to be the next Liberal leader and began touring the country. Save for a leadership convention, Martin was fully engaged in a leadership bid. Chretien had intended to stay on into 2004, but when he received less support than he expected from caucus, he announced his retirement for December 2003. As such, a leadership convention was called.
It was well known that Martin was going to be the new leader. The atmosphere at the convention mimicked that of a coronation. The only person foolish (or brave enough, depending upon your perspective) to run against Martin was Sheila Copps. However, Martin received well over 90% of the vote on the first ballot, and was elected without question. His years working within the party to gain support, had paid off. He was officially sworn in as Prime Minister in December of 2003.
By this time, the sponsorship scandal had broken and seriously tainted the Liberal party. Polls had the governing party losing support with the electorate, so in an effort to stave off the bleeding, Martin called an election for late spring 2004. It was an awkward time of year, and it was hoped this would benefit the government, by producing a lower voter turnout. Voters cautiously handed Martin a minority government. This was the first election with the newly united Conservative party, which benefited the opposition. In addition, Martin was a terrible public speaker and performed poorly in the debates. He had a frumpy image, which does not help a man wishing to appear Prime Ministerial.
During the minority parliament, Martin’s government dealt with equalization payments, same-sex marriage and health care. The government nearly fell on several occasions, but was saved by shifty floor crossing maneuvers. The Gomery report into the sponsorship scandal was released in 2005, and while it cleared Martin of wrongdoing, it definitely tarnished an already damaged Liberal brand. With polls showing the government faltering, the opposition parties were happy to bring them down through a non confidence motion in the fall of 2005.
The election of 2006 was awkwardly held over the Christmas break. Once again, Martin was unable to inspire anything in voters, and he was a much weaker opponent than most of the other party leaders. It was known for much of the campaign, that unless something drastic occurred, the Liberals would be defeated. Infighting within the party did not help the situation, but in the end, the ‘Big Red Machine’ as it became known during the 1990’s, was defeated by a newly emerging ‘Big Blue Machine’ that has persisted ever since.
As mentioned, Martin immediately resigned as leader, realizing he could take the party no further. There was serious division within the party that is arguably still present to this day. Martin is still active on numerous boards and organizations. He and wife Sheila spend most of their time on a farm that the couple owns, where Martin takes care of most of the property on his own. Martin suffered from being a positively boring speaker, who had a terrible public image. There is no question that he is a very intelligent man, and could have been a more successful Prime Minister, had he been elected at a different time. The sad state of the Liberal party, coupled with his own lack of guidance, simply accelerated the death of the Liberal party, which to this day has not fully recovered.
As we look forward, it is unclear when we might see another Liberal Prime Minister. Paul Martin’s successor, Stephane Dion, was the first Liberal leader in decades not to have become Prime Minister. The job of leader used to automatically translate to Prime Minister in one way or another, but it appears that may have ended with Martin. So far Dion’s successor, Michael Ignatieff, has been unable to move the party significantly forward. It has been stuck, spinning its wheels, ever since Martin took over as leader, and the unfortunate reality for Liberal voters, is that it doesn’t appear to be gaining traction anytime soon.