Election fever is going around Ottawa, but the real issue is Paul Martin’s leadership. He and his team are losing control of Parliament, the government apparatus, and the Party.
Liberals looking ahead cannot like what they see: weak support in opinion polls, daily revelations of party wrongdoing, and the same leader, still unable to establish a recognizable Liberal agenda. And next up is an election.
This was supposed to be the Martin government. What people see instead is the ChrÃ©tien-Martin regime. Liberals must be starting to yearn for a new idea and a fresh face. What else is going to change the unhappy story lines coming out of the capital?
When Pierre Trudeau was running for the Liberal leadership he was asked by Patrick Watson what to expect of him. “New guys, new ideas, not old guys, old ideas,” he answered.
Ken Dryden and a national child care program looked like a good basis for Liberal renewal. Rolling out the first major social program since medicare was a good way to build support from party constituencies. Maybe nobody told Ken he was in charge, or perhaps he was intimidated by Ontario Premier McGuinty’s assertion that Ontario needed a better break on federal-provincial finances. Whatever the reason, Dryden was unable to make a play with the puck.
Martin himself thought he could distance himself from scandal by getting as far away from Ottawa as possible, as often as possible. It has not worked. Libya, the papal funeral, NATO, G7/8 summit — none of this has produced an initiative memorable enough to make people see the government in a new light. Maybe he thinks the more frequent flyer points he earns, the more votes he gets.
The most popular decision made by Martin was not to join the U.S. in its money wasting, arms race escalating, antimissile program. It was a good decision, reminiscent of his predecessor’s refusal to send Canadian combat troops to Iraq, so all he gets credit for is showing the same good sense as Jean ChrÃ©tien.
The best chance for the Liberals to neuter the findings of the Gomery inquiry and get the public thinking about something else is to bring in a new leader with no baggage, that is, a person who had nothing to do with the ChrÃ©tien-Martin regime.
The current prospect is Michael Ignatieff. Son of a well known Canadian diplomat, accomplished academic, author and a celebrated British television chat show host, Ignatieff is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he is a human rights specialist. An experienced public speaker, he is very telegenic, thoughtful and plenty savvy about the world of Liberals, leadership and politics.
In a recent foray into Canada, his second high profile recent visit (the first being to address the Liberal policy convention) Iganatieff suggested that Canadians had to confront the constitutional question, set aside after Brian Mulroney was sent packing. A new era is opening, he said; the old conflicts need to be resolved.
Martin will be replaced if the Liberals lose power. If they do win another election, the party will still be looking to replace him with a new face. That is the life of a Liberal leader — you get hunted, while the party hunts for your replacement. That is what happened to John Turner and to Jean ChrÃ©tien; earlier, Lester Pearson was the target. Once the alternative leader(s) emerge, the old leader has to go.
The Liberal leadership hunting season is now open.