Paul Martin, man of mystery. I mean it. Here’s an example.

In Elm Street magazine, for one of those lightweight Q & As which have also plagued Toronto’s mayoral campaign (What’s your favourite intersection?), our presumptive leader was asked to “Name a country other than ours that has been governed well.” He answered — Iceland! Yet Iceland has been about everything Paul Martin has not been.

In the past 20 years, Iceland has been the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, even in Scandinavia, to show a rise in ratio of public spending on social programs to GDP. Paul Martin, on the other hand, as finance minister, bragged about reducing the ratio of program spending to its lowest level since 1949-50.

Iceland increased public services in that time, while Mr. Martin introduced his famed reviews to scour the public sector for savings. It’s true Iceland has maintained balanced budgets, but only by raising taxes, while we had $100-billion of Martin tax cuts in 2000. Higher education, for example, is virtually free there. OECD disciplinarians wish Iceland would charge more and exact the rest in loans so that it could begin to turn universities back into winter camps for kids of the rich — as in Canada.

Other Scandinavian countries, says the OECD, have made “made more progress reining in” public spending. So why didn’t Paul Martin cite Sweden or Norway? That would have showcased his renowned social conscience, associated with his father’s legacy, while including his own hard-hearted devotion to fiscal probity. I mean, this man, in 1995, removed a 30-year-old federal guarantee to welfare as a right, allowing flinty premiers such as Mike Harris to get on with their war against the poor. Why Iceland? That’s the mystery. It makes me sure he didn’t assign Elm Street‘s dinky quiz to an underling. No one else would have replied with anything so weird.

Is he just lying? But what for? Does he mean it, and stupidly fails to notice the discrepancy? Has he, as Leo Strauss said political thinkers must do, dropped conflicting versions onto the public record, which only a secret elite can untangle? Is he trying to resolve an inner conflict by doing one thing (slashing), then declaring another? Is he a paradoxophile, as British shrink Adam Phillips has been called in another context? Does he, like Walt Whitman, proudly contradict himself and contain multitudes? It’s hard to say. Even Linda McQuaig, a harsh critic of Martinomics, thinks Paul Martin may be sincere when he supports the Tobin tax or derides “structural adjustment” demands on poor countries by the IMF.

I am gazing right now at a photo of pro-Martin youth high-fiving ecstatically as they hear news that their man just swept Liberal delegate voting. What releases such hormonal, crucial-to-the-future energy in them? Or makes wizened lobbyists and PR hacks get misty at the mere sound of his name?

Crime and representation. The sad case of Cecilia Zhang’s abduction reflects the extent to which it has now become difficult to think about crime itself, without drawing on images from TV’s vast output on the topic. I don’t just mean reality shows like America’s Most Wanted. At times, the abduction seemed to combine a plot from Law and Order, where crimes are often premeditated and planned by rational, well-off culprits (oddly like Agatha Christie’s), with one from NYPD Blue, carried out by stoned, brain-dead losers whose plans are at best sudden and slapdash, as in Elmore Leonard’s novels. But the Zhang case may have had another element: a culture clash whereby one pattern “avoid the police and resolve the matter internally” met another, according to which police must be called in. The result may turn out to be tragic. It makes you realize how simplistic and poorly drawn the discussion of crime has been in Toronto’s mayoral race: You have to put more money for police officers in the budget, candidate Tom Jakobek told candidate David Miller, “because people are dying.”

The bad guys. It has become common among U.S. officials to describe the opposition in Iraq as the bad guys. I heard a retired general do it on CNN the other day. The term seems to come from police work (at least I first heard it on the cop shows) but it may derive from other sources, like old cowboy movies or the highly moralized discourse of young kids. Most adults in the media use it in a somewhat sophisticated way, with an element of irony implied; you can pretty well hear the inverted quotes as they say it. The clear exception would be President George Bush, who does see the world as a straightforward conflict between good and evil. But since he occupies a well-known bully pulpit, a re-injection of complexity into the term might be useful. So I’ll cite a four-year-old who recently asked, after an extended silence, “Are bad guys nice to each other?”


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.