Considering the appeal of easy access to a pulpit, one of the biggest perks of political office, it is not surprising that firing off one last ideological salvo in the form of a memoir has become de rigueur for former heads of state. The general appeal of such works is questionable, but given the Liberal Party’s continuing decline, highlighted by its historically poor showing in the last federal election, few people seem better positioned to offer perspective on the party’s fortunes than Canada’s last Liberal prime minister. The story starts in Windsor. The young Paul Martin, Jr., always within earshot of his father’s politicking, feels an “ambivalence for the profession,” and instead chooses law school and a career in business. Martin takes the helm at Canadian Shipping Lines, capitalizing on an entrepreneurial vigour and a boyhood love of all things nautical. His eventual entry into politics, though logical, seems almost out of character. Once on the Hill, Martin, with his corporate pedigree, was an obvious choice for finance minister, charged with the job no one wanted: balancing Canada’s books. Martin is at his best when writing about his years as budgetary axe-man in the 1990s. He clearly and concisely explains the implications of national debt and makes a strong case for global financial reform. Through the first half of the book, Martin maintains a healthy balance between insight, humour, and a minimum of self-flattery. The writing is by no means engrossing, but it is certainly readable. The book’s second half, which begins with the 2004 election campaign, is dramatically different. A social visionary with a healthy dose of financial pragmatism, Martin was the odds-on favourite to lead the country. But the Liberals’ victory did not shepherd Canada into the expected golden age, prompting the obvious question: what went wrong? Instead of providing an answer, Hell or High Water degenerates into self-aggrandizement and finger-pointing. As might be expected, Martin revisits his clashes with Jean Chrétien and dwells at length on the infamous sponsorship scandal, which he blames for weakening the Liberal Party’s integrity and hindering his own ability to govern. Just as Chrétien did in his plodding yet vitriolic 2007 memoir My Years as Prime Minister, Martin reopens an ugly chapter of Canadian political history, one the public would rather forget, but whose main players incomprehensibly insist on rehashing at every opportunity. When it comes to talking about his work as prime minister, Martin is sweeping and perfunctory. He predictably lauds his own policy initiatives, and even defends some of his more questionable decisions, such as his blind-eye policy toward China. But on the key question of why Canadians, so enamoured with Martin the finance minister, did not throw their support behind Martin the prime minister, he provides no answers.
“Martin writes presciently of our current financial crisis — and settles several scores.”
— Montreal Gazette
— CTV News
— Policy Options
“Martin does not hesitate to dish.”
— Ottawa Citizen