The party that lost its way

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The Article

There is a Liberal party, and a Liberal leader, that could win this election. But today’s Liberal party is not that party, and Paul Martin is not that leader.

Or rather, this Paul Martin is not. There is another Paul Martin who could win: the Paul Martin who slew the deficit, the Paul Martin who came to office vowing to slay the democratic deficit as well. But this is not that Paul Martin.

There is a Liberal party that could play to traditional Liberal strengths. It could attack the separatists for the destructive force that they are. It could defend the federal prerogative against the parochial demands of the provinces, and denounce the Tories for their readiness to take in the premiers’ washing. It could insist on the primacy of the Charter, and the vital necessity of preserving a single-payer health care system.

There is an “ideal form” of Liberal party that could do this: the Liberal party that once was, the Liberal party that might be. But the Liberal party that is cannot, nor certainly can its present leader. Mr. Martin cannot attack separatism as illegitimate—not after appointing one of the founders of the Bloc Quebecois, Jean Lapierre, as his lieutenant. Nor can he present himself as the man to stare down an attempted separatist coup, having done so much to undermine the Clarity Act—from his initial refusal to endorse it, to bumping Stephane Dion from Cabinet, to Mr. Lapierre’s comments, never repudiated, that the Act was “useless.”

Mr. Martin cannot denounce the Conservatives for making parley with the Bloc, having done so himself whenever it suited him. Nor can he paint the Tories as the party that would give away the store to the provinces in general, or Quebec in particular, when his whole record is the same: from the debacle of the health care deal—$41-billion in exchange for six magic beans—to the “asymmetric federalism” fiasco to the McGuinty cave-in to the incoherent mess that was once the equalization program.

Mr. Martin might have some room to attack the Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, for his readiness to override the Charter—were it not Mr. Harper who has in fact vowed “never” to invoke the notwithstanding clause, and Mr. Martin who once mused that he might. And Mr. Martin can say nothing about any alleged Tory threat to medicare, when it is on his watch that private medical clinics charging fat fees for access—not just private provision, but private finance—have proliferated across the country. He cannot so much as mention the Canada Health Act, the second Charter of Rights, when it is he who made it a dead letter.

It is the same for those more recent additions to the Liberal creed. Mr. Martin can hardly pose as the champion of Kyoto, when his own misgivings about the accord—the usual unnamed Martin aide even mused about reneging at one point—are well-known. Not to say the rank hypocrisy of upbraiding the Americans for their failure to ratify, when we lag behind not only them but virtually every other signatory nation with respect to our own commitments.

Mr. Martin likes to remind people of Mr. Harper’s earlier readiness to support the American-led invasion of Iraq (not that this should be counted as a fault, but never mind). But Mr. Martin was no less gung-ho at one time, in principle if not in explicit commitments. He paints Mr. Harper as too pro-American, but it was his own declared mission as a candidate for leader of his party to forge a more “mature” relationship with the Yanks, after the infantile taunts of the Chretien era. He might make hay of the Conservative leader’s opposition to gay marriage, had he ever once expressed support for the idea himself—not as something imposed upon us by the Charter, but as a positive good.

On all these issues, the Paul Martin who would be Prime Minister distanced himself from the government of which he was once a part, portraying himself as a centrist alternative to his left-leaning predecessor. That’s his right—but having jumped off that train, he cannot ride it now. Or if he wishes to credit himself with that government’s achievements, he cannot avoid association with its misdeeds.

Indeed, so completely has Mr. Martin turned himself inside out that he cannot even campaign on his own record. The Paul Martin of 1997 or even 2000 might legitimately boast of his success in curbing spending. The Paul Martin of 2005, after the runaway growth in spending since then—nearly 50% over five years, much of it unbudgeted—cannot. As for the “democratic deficit,” supposedly the raison d’etre of his premiership, the less said about that the better.

It’s sad. After all his tacking about, his endless opportunism, his shameless hypocrisy, Mr. Martin cannot credibly campaign as either an old Liberal or a new one. The traditional Liberal coalition has been abandoned, without another having been assembled in its place. The party is now as hollow as the man.

This article originally appeared at the National Post on December 28 2005, and is reprinted here with the express permission of its author, Andrew Coyne.

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