Veteran journalist John Gray, who has worked at The Globe and Mail for more than 20 years, most recently as national correspondent, brought his outstanding credentials to the task of writing an enigmatic biography of Paul Martin, before Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien as Canadas 21st Prime Minister.
Please keep in mind that The Power of Ambition, released on September 27, 2003, was completed when our current Prime Minister was still the new leader of the Liberal party, and also that he is referred to throughout Grays book simply as Mr. Martin. For the purposes of this review, we shall do the same.
Gray describes Mr. Martin at age 65 as a work-in-progress, a conundrum that has fascinated and frustrated Paul Martin admirers and supporters, and it is this aspect of Mr. Martins personality that Gray attempts to track and comprehend, giving readers a measure of the man.
Grays most comforting refrain is the constant reminder that our current Mr. Martin is the son of Paul Martin senior, a small l-liberal reformer, dominant on the national political scene for more than 30 years, who helped change the face of Canada beginning in 1935 when he was first elected to the House of Commons as the MP for Essex East.
From day one Mr. Martins father agitated for reform, beginning with his strong support for organized labour. Upon entering the cabinet as Secretary of State in 1945, he introduced the Citizenship Act. Until then there had been no such animal as a Canadian citizen, and those who took pride in their identification as British did not appreciate their change in status. Within 18 months he became Minister of Health and Welfare, winning approval for Old Age Security reforms, and national medical care insurance. In his memoirs A Very Public Life (two volumes, 1983, 1986), Mr. Martins father wrote: I was no out-and-out radical, but rather saw myself as a tenacious small l liberal. Our party had to move steadily to the goal of social justice. If it stood still, it would perish....Yet most of St. Laurents cabinet, including the prime minister, prized soundness of administration and budgetary surpluses as much as popularity. I kept reminding the finance minister of the budgetary surplus, imploring him to move quickly to help our older citizens.
It is haunting that our Mr. Martin was hired to create a budgetary surplus, when he served as Finance Minister for Jean Chrétien for a run of almost nine years (1993-2002)-precisely that which his father wrestled with and fought to spend for the sake of social programs.
In a chapter which Gray calls, The Grand Alliance, which could be subtitled, The Odd Couple, Gray outlines how Mr. Martin and Mr. Chrétien-two leaders and decision makers from totally different backgrounds, who had totally different ideas about governance-learned to agree.
Canada was burdened with a deficit that threatened its economic stability; it was about to lose its credibility in the worlds financial markets and go the way of Mexico or Argentina. Because of the interest charges, the federal debt was growing out of control-446 billion in 1993, $508 billion in 1994-at a rate of $85,000 per minute. So, after Mr. Martins 1994 experiment with the budget, which entailed bold chopping of unemployment insurance and defense spending, Mr. Martins 1995 budget cut federal expenditures everywhere, and none of the social programs (which he claimed to believe in as strongly as his father) were spared.
The goal was to deliver the Liberals 1993 election promise to reduce the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product by the fiscal year 1996-1997.
Brutally frank with Canadians, Mr. Martin described the cancer of compound interest as the money that cannot go to social programs, cannot go to child poverty, cannot go to science and technology, cannot go to the lowering of taxes. It robs this country of its potential. It robs our children of their future. And, as an addendum: That increase in interest rates just meant that we didnt have a penny for any of the things my dad believed in .... I could just see the federal government essentially becoming the tax collector on Monday so that we could pay the interest costs on Tuesday, and that was going to be the end of it. And thats the way we were going....
Grays assessment of our current Prime Minister is far from hagiography; candidly Gray suggests that the gruelling process of getting back the federal surplus was only Part One of Mr. Martins game plan.
As his fathers chief admirer (he spoke with the senior Mr. Martin on the phone 4-5 times a day), our Mr. Martin insisted on carving out a non-political existence for himself upon his graduation from studies in philosophy and law.
He became a successful business executive, rising to the vice-presidency of planning and development at Power Corp in 1973, and moving on with a Power Corps partner in 1981 to buy Canada Steamship Lines. From 1965, when he graduated from U of T Law School, until l987 when he announced that he intended to run in Montreals riding of La Salle, he appeared to have absolutely no political aspirations whatsoever.
Here is where biographer Grays tracking of the conundrum of Paul Martin yields some surprises. Unlike most Finance Ministers, Paul Martin did not conduct business as usual at Esplanade Laurier, the offices of the federal Department of Finance. He made all his decisions by consensus, and Gray spends several pages describing just how this time-consuming process worked. There are names of many senior civil servants, who put in workdays from early in the morning until midnight. David Dodge, then-deputy minister of finance and now Governor of the Bank of Canada, was one of those senior officials. Their finance meetings were desperately practical, while the process of arriving at practicality consisted of a series of debates. Grays implicit assumption is that Mr. Martin hated being the dispenser of bitter medicine, and that he wanted to make certain that all Canadians understood why their government was acting so single-mindedly.
Grays intimate knowledge of the players in Ottawa who helped Mr. Martin make his decisions is available for readers; what is not available is how many senior civil servants, political officials, and official outside consultants refuse to be quoted. One individual who never seems to mind is Toronto Liberal MP John Godfrey. And there are a few gems from the lips of Eddie Goldenberg, Chrétiens most senior policy adviser, and the most trusted person in Chrétiens Ottawa.
At the end of the biography, Grays work-in-progress continues to unfold. After a gruelling nine years, Mr. Martin as finance minister eliminated Canadas debt to create a budgetary surplus. The big question remains: what will Paul Martin, Canadas 21st Prime Minister, do with the fall-out of a legacy that was his very own creation?
As our new PM took his oath of office on December 12, 2003, he carried the folded flag that flew at half-mast the day his father died. If thats a hint of what is to come, Gray has provided readers with the necessary clues: our social programs will not only remain intact-they will be enhanced. Sharon Abron Drache
(Books in Canada)
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