Listen to Chretien's parting words

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One thing that became clear over the past week was how badly media pundits wanted to see the end of Jean Chrétien.

Paul Martin has long been the darling of the media-commentator set, and their impatience to get on with the business of crowning him prime minister was palpable.

Chrétien's impassioned speech to the Liberal convention on Thursday night — in which he warned his audience about the danger of the right gaining too much influence — seemed to do little more than annoy the pundits.

The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson chastised Chrétien for staying on “longer than he should have, and longer than Canadians wanted him to.”

Really? And exactly how long should Chrétien, who led the Liberals to three majority governments, have stayed? Why “should” he have left sooner — because Paul Martin was keen to be prime minister?

I've never understood the Chrétien-Martin soap opera as explained by pundits, with the blame all heaped on Chrétien for having the impudence not to surrender more quickly to the guy who wanted his job.

Chrétien has consistently been popular with the public, and no time more so than in the past year, when he largely threw away the script written by business leaders and took some courageous stands that mightily irritated them — on Kyoto, campaign finance reform and, above all, on Iraq (for which he received thunderous applause Thursday night).

It seemed as if Chrétien had undergone some sort of deathbed conversion. He had never particularly warmed to Bay Street bigwigs, and, perhaps, after they effectively pushed him aside in favour of Martin, Chrétien no longer felt the need to keep them happy. I'm sad we won't be seeing more of this deathbed Chrétien; it's been a while since this country has had a prime minister with his degree of independence from Bay Street.

I also suspect that Chrétien's warning about the power of the right wasn't just about the new conservative party, but also about the right-wing business forces rallying around Martin.

Both represent a danger to the aspirations of ordinary Canadians.

Chrétien's admonition to beware the forces on the right is reminiscent of former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower's departing warning to Americans to beware the growing power of the military industrial complex. Too bad nobody paid attention to that.

Certainly, Canada's business leaders have been very keen on Martin, whom they credit with getting Ottawa to adopt Bay Street economic orthodoxy — deep social spending cuts and lower taxes — when he was finance minister in the Chrétien government.

They're right about that; Martin's been their guy. His big move — for which he won the undying loyalty of the business elite — was the slashing of government spending from 16 per cent of GDP down to below 12 per cent. That tells a big part of the story of the cutbacks and austerity that have plagued virtually every program in the country; those cuts have meant less money for every level of government. You could call it Martin's version of “trickle down” theory.

Canadians think of Martin as the guy who eliminated the deficit, but his name should also pop to mind whenever we think of hospital bed shortages, surging tuition fees, and homeless people on the streets.

Even after the deficit was eliminated, Martin stuck to Bay Street orthodoxy, making tax cuts and debt reduction his priorities. He delivered $100 billion in tax cuts, while keeping government spending depressed below 12 per cent of GDP. This explains why, after six consecutive budget surpluses, we're still essentially in austerity mode.

Given the fact that Martin's campaign just raised some $12 million, mostly from Bay Street, it seems unlikely that he'll be changing direction. In his acceptance speech, he signalled that he wouldn't. Certainly, Martin's generous contributors are counting on him staying the course.

One possible fly in the ointment of their plans could be the Canadian public.

After all, Dalton McGuinty just won a huge majority in Ontario by clearly rejecting the tax cut agenda of the Tory government (even cancelling promised tax cuts) and pledging social reinvestment.

Whether McGuinty follows through or uses the surprise deficit the Tories left him as an excuse to change course, his victory signifies a hunger on the part of the public to start rebuilding the country.

But business leaders are dead set against that happening, and have invested heavily in the affable, popular Martin in the hopes of keeping Ottawa fixated on Bay Street orthodoxy.

Just what was that again that Chrétien was trying to warn us about, over the impatient cries of media pundits and business leaders hurrying him offstage?

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