[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on former Prime Minister Paul Martin.]
So what went wrong? What turned the man whom many would hail as the country’s best minister of finance into a disappointing prime minister? What occurs to me is the two-word answer . . . Jean Chrétien. First, we should recognize that the long, secret, underground war with the Chrétienites was an amazing success. History affords few examples of a sitting prime minister with a winning record, a comfortable majority in the House, and a good standing in the polls, being forced out by a palace coup from inside his own party. And all without stilettos or machine guns.
Here, an outsider might speculate, perhaps lies an explanation for Paul Martin’s discomfort with the word “ambition,” applied to his own career. The same outsider might even go on to observe that a team assembled to produce such a successful political assassination might not be the ideal group to go on and run the country.
Then there is the case of what even the most unromantic journalists call “the poisoned chalice.” The Quebec sponsorship scandal was a tar baby dumped in his lap by Chrétien on his way out the door, and the tar clung to poor Paul. He was the minister of finance, he was from Quebec, surely he must have known what was going on. Even his eloquent protests that the closed Chrétien Quebec circle would have been more likely to inform “The Little Sisters of the Poor” than their enemies, the Martinites, failed to register widely. To many voters the Liberals were now the party of corruption, end of story.
My friend Eddie Goldenberg would say — hell, did say, in his book — that Martin handled the whole thing badly; he should simply have let the scandal play itself out, with the police arresting the guilty people who made ill-gotten gains, and the Liberal Party and the government moving on. What Martin chose to do was to go on a national “mad as hell” tour, telling all Canadians how outraged he was by what had gone on, and appointing the Gomery Commission to reveal the whole truth. What the Gomery Commission did, of course, was keep the issue on the front pages month after month, reminding Canadians daily of this great Liberal corruption-fest in Quebec.
I think that there may be a reason for the “mad as hell” tour that lies beyond political tactics. Maybe Paul Martin really was mad as hell. Mad that the wily Chrétien had dumped this sticky mess in his lap. Mad that the money had all gone out behind his back, when he was trying to mind the dollars and cents. Mad that the revelations had set the rest of the country against the “corrupt” province of Quebec. And above all mad that he was now stuck trying to defend a Liberal “brand” that had been hopelessly stained by the whole thing. At another level, I’d suggest that maybe Paul Martin, although he was a grown-up well aware that politics can be a rough game, was personally disgusted by the corruption.
In the end — as Eddie Goldenberg would have warned him — the fact that Gomery exonerated him personally from any complicity in the affair simply didn’t matter. The Sponsorship Scandal thundercloud hung over his whole term in office. Eventually, with a mysterious assist from the then–RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli, it burst, and swept him out of office, with most of his ideas still waiting to be enshrined in law.
. . .
The word “ideas” brings me to an important point, another reason that, I suspect, led to his failure to achieve the results he wanted while in office. Working with him, I found that he was a man of great enthusiasms. No surprise there. I suggest that a large part of his problem as head of government (summed up in the hostile description “Mr. Dithers”) was that he was an intellectual.
Let me explain that. He was an intellectual in the sense that he really liked ideas. I have worked with bright people of all sorts, often with strings of publications and degrees to their name. But I have rarely encountered anyone who was so genuinely excited by ideas.
Three examples. The national daycare program really started years earlier, in 1996, when a research paper from “the social policy expert Ken Battle at the Caledon Institute” happened to reach Paul’s office. The Martin book recalls, “I thought the scheme was ingenious, and I phoned Ken up one Sunday morning to talk about it. We didn’t know each other at the time, and he was plainly a little startled at being peppered with questions from the minister of finance . . .” No kidding.
Second, Michael Decter’s 2010 memoir, Tales from the Back Room, tells of a meeting that Paul, then minister of finance, arranged in order to pick Michael’s brains about health care. “I remember it as an unusual experience. Often when someone in political life asks you your opinion after a very short period of time they will tell you their opinion, often at great length. Paul Martin did exactly the opposite. For over two hours at lunch he sought my views, in meticulous detail. I was both intrigued and flattered. Martin proved to be that rare creature, a politician who could really listen.”
In a similar vein, Martin cabinet colleague John Godfrey has told me of an incident when he put some thoughts on paper and sent them along to Paul. He received a phone call on Christmas morning from Paul, eager to discuss what he had written, tossing around his own ideas.
All of this would have been fine if as head of government Paul had had an experienced team (or maybe a Goldenberg figure) to make sure his trains ran on time, concentrating on this issue, and leaving that one, and that other one, for later attention. I’m sure that his staff tried. It is an ironic theory that this very successful businessman, and the former effective head of an immensely complex finance department, should have failed to achieve as much as he wanted as prime minister, because ideas set him afire with excitement.
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Paul Martin.