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Monday, February 23, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Since the day that Auditor General Sheila Fraser publicly released her report on the federal government sponsorship fiasco, Paul Martin has been everywhere - on radio phone-in shows, at press conferences, and at venues across the country. Indeed, for a while, it seemed likely that the Martinites would be taking the next logical step and launching The Paul Martin Channel on digital cable ("All Paul Martin, all the time"). Although the strategy may turn out to be relatively short lived (Martin's spinners are already touting the need to "move on"), the Liberals' attempt to repackage Paul Martin as "The most accessible Prime Minister in Canadian history"TM merits some serious analysis.

The most obvious reason for Martin's sudden availability is that he and his advisors have recognized how much trouble the Liberals are in. Just as it took negative polls (showing that he was poised to lose badly to either John Kerry or John Edwards) to prompt George W. Bush to appear on Meet the Press, Martin had little choice but to confront his accusers. Instead of engaging in futile attempts to hide from the inevitable (figurative) beating, he knew that he had to get his message out as directly and as often as possible.

In addition, Martin wants to make it appear that he is leading a new team, not the same old Liberal team (of which he had been such an integral part for nine of ten years). As noted by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, "From the first day, he tried to portray himself as an agent of change and renewal. That is why, when public outrage greeted the Auditor-General's report, he effectively quit the Liberal Party himself, abandoning loyalists in Quebec to their fate at the hands of a public inquiry, telling the public that he was one of them, angry with them." Martin even made a virtue of the fact that he had been undermining Jean Chrétien's leadership for years, indicating that this power struggle had left him out of the sponsorship loop. "It is no secret that I did not have an easy relationship with those around the prime minister. In short, my advice was not routinely sought on issues related to Quebec."

The good news is that no one seems to believe Martin's protestations of innocence. On Cross-Country Checkup, for example, virtually none of the callers supported his argument that as Finance Minister, he merely planned how money was to be spent, as opposed to directly overseeing how every dollar was spent. Moreover, he never mentioned the fact that he actually sat as Vice-President of Treasury Board.

To me, Martin's exaggerated expressions of anger are reminiscent of the following scene in Casablanca:

Rick: "How can they close me up? On what grounds?"

Captain Renault: "I'm shocked -- shocked -- to find that gambling is going
on in here."

Dealer at Rick's: "Your winnings, sir"

Captain Renault: "Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once."

The analogy is particularly appropriate if one reflects on the fact that absolutely no one in the Liberal Party is offering to return the estimated $300,000 in squandered funds that was handed back to the Liberals by the ad agencies in the form of political donations.

Other than Paul Martin's Prime Ministership, there are likely to be three main consequences of this scandal, each equally unfortunate. The scandal has opened a door for Quebec bashers of all political stripes. In my view, this is an absurd interpretation of what happened. The sponsorship program wasn't something that Quebec asked for; it was something that was foisted upon the province by a federal government. Lacking any better ideas for convincing Quebec voters of the important role of the federal government, the Liberals fell back on the idea that randomly scattering money around the province(and often into the wrong pockets) would do the job.

As well, the more that people hear about money being stolen, invoices being fabricated and cheques being "kited" (which was a new term for me when I heard Martin using it last week), the more that they are likely to lose faith in the ability of governments to do the things that we need government to do. That may be good for corporations that feed off the spoils of privatization, but it's bad for taxpayers and those who use government services.

Lastly, voters are losing faith in the political system as a whole and voter turnout is declining at an alarming rate. But, the problem isn't with Canadian politics or politicians in general; the problem is the Liberal Party, which (like the Mulroney Conservatives) acts like the public treasury is there to serve their personal and political interests (instead of acting to serve the needs of the public). Quite simply, it's time for Canadians to use their votes to elect better politicians.


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