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Thursday, September 22, 2005

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  • Paul Martin, heal thyself.

    Paul Martin, heal thyself.

Paul Martin, heal thyself.

In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations General Assembly, Martin tore a strip off the world body for its inaction on issues such as the protection of human rights, global warming, disease, and aid to the developing world. He even suggested that the organization, currently marking its sixtieth anniversary, had "a serious credibility problem."

Martin told the approximately 150 world leaders who were gathered for the annual three-day summit that "empty rhetoric" must be replaced by "concrete results". According to Martin, "If the United Nations is to work, we know what we have to do, and we also know we are not doing nearly well enough." We shouldn't give up hope, however. "Canada cannot conceive of a world succeeding without the United Nations."

Now, assuming that anyone was actually paying attention at the UN, Martin's speech (widely described in Canadian media as "scathing") may have caused a little bit of a ripple. Here was the elected leader of a G8 country - located next to the World's Only Superpower - lecturing other countries about the need for action of some of the world's biggest problems. Representatives of many countries (notably Scandinavian and a few other European countries) may well have been offended by the fact that Martin was chastising them when Canada's record on the issues in question was much less impressive than their own.

But, let's be clear about this; Martin's speech was not really aimed at the audience present in the United Nations General Assembly, or even at the governments that they represent. They were just extras in a movie crowd shot. Martin wanted to talk tough at the United Nations because he thought it would play well at home.

The problem is that, like many of the leaders who must have been spewing their coffee as Martin spoke, Canadians already know all about Paul Martin. As co-author of the Liberals' 1993 platform, he literally wrote the (red) book on "empty rhetoric". It's one thing, for example, for Martin to tell the UN that "climate change is real and the world must recognize it. Human activity is a defining cause and the world must act on it." It's something else entirely for the government that Martin leads (and its predecessor, in which he was the most powerful minister) to actually do something about the problem.

In fact, far from assuring a twenty per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (as the red book promised), the decade after the Liberals became the government actually saw a twenty per cent increase in emissions. As NDP leader Jack Layton quipped, "at least he got the twenty per cent figure right." Clearly, the Canadian record of "concrete inaction" on the issue hardly gives Martin the right to lecture anyone else on the subject of climate change. It's not enough to sign Kyoto and make grand speeches about the need for action. Why not lead by example instead, and let Canada's record speak for itself?

When it comes to the subject of foreign aid, Martin is on even shakier ground. Although it was a Canadian (Lester Pearson) who first proposed the target of 0.7% of GDP for rich nations' aid budgets, we've never hit that target ourselves. We were steadily increasing our percentage - getting as high as 0.5% -- until someone named Paul Martin became Finance Minister. Now, with virtually every other industrialized country except the United States promising to hit the 0.7% target by 2015, Martin says he can't even make that promise. "When Canada says it's going to do something, it does it. We will increase our aid, but I am not going to give the ultimate date until I'm assured, and that Canadians are assured, that we will hit that date."

Given his well-established record of breaking promises, it's not clear why he's unwilling to make and break another one. The line about not wanting to make a commitment unless he's sure he can keep it is almost laughable in view of that history.

Bob Geldof, spokesperson for a generation, criticized Martin last week for his failure to commit to the target. "It's going to happen. It's a question of, Paul, join the club, dude. It's not that hard." Even the normally sycophantic CTV reporter Roger Smith noted the contradiction between Martin's words and his actions, asking Martin if he was possibly "guilty of rhetoric yourself?" Indeed, if anyone has "a serious credibility problem", it's Paul Martin.

It's not only on international matters that Martin fails to deliver on his rhetoric. Remember how the health accord with the provinces signed a year ago was going to "fix health care for a generation"? Remember how he was going to "look Ralph Klein in the eye and tell him no" (regarding Klein's plans for privatizing health care)? Remember how Martin was going to "fix the democratic deficit"? Remember his claims that a Martin government would bring about "transformative change" in a whole range of areas?

It's not uncommon for politicians to rehearse their speeches in front of a mirror. In Martin's case, if he's looking for someone to condemn for "empty rhetoric", he should probably stick to delivering them in front of a mirror as well.

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