It’s no great secret that I’m not a fan of Paul Martin. When he and his gang of manipulative thugs completed their ten-year campaign against Jean Chretien and took over the Liberal Party of Canada in November of 2003, I thought that there would be trouble ahead. But even I never dreamed that it would get as bad as it is about to become.
By now most Canadians know that a federal election is in the offing. It may come as early as this spring or as late as the fall depending upon how undemocratic Prime Minister Paul Martin – ironically enough, the self-described slayer of the “democratic deficit” – chooses to be. Martin can cancel scheduled opposition days in the House of Commons, delay a critical vote on the budget, and even close up Parliament altogether, but at some point he will have to face another election campaign, the second in just twelve months.
While the Liberals survived the first election with a slim minority government it seems that this time only photographs of a post-coital embrace between Conservative leader Stephen Harper and George W. Bush will prevent them from being booted into the opposition benches and reduced, perhaps catastrophically, in numbers.
Amid the usual pre-election posturing and gesticulating, the Martin Liberals dropped a not-so-subtle hint about their preferred campaign theme. National Unity, the bedrock of Canadian liberalism and the only policy that the Liberal Party of Canada hasn’t flip-flopped on in the past fifty years, will become, like the healthcare system, a political prop in Martin’s redramatization of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. National unity is, to extend the playing card metaphor, the only card left in the deck for Paul Martin.
But playing it, in my estimation, will have dire consequences. While it may well succeed in moderating the losses that the Martin Liberals are sure to suffer at ballot boxes in English Canada, it will almost certainly strengthen the already impressive hand that the Quebec separatist movement currently holds.
Paul Martin has never been particularly interested in National Unity. His relationship with federalism has been, at best, difficult. He strongly supported both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, deals that were eventually shot dead by Pierre Trudeau. His Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, was a founding member of the Bloc Quebecois, and Lapierre’s first acts were to denounce the Clarity Act, announce the nomination of seven other “former” separatists as Liberal candidates, and proclaim that “nationalist Quebeckers are welcome in the Paul Martin team.” Martin even cut a side-deal with Quebec on the 2004 Health Care Accord, creating a precedent for future intergovernmental negotiations that Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien fought for thirty years to avoid.
Let’s begin with the increasingly likely assumption that Paul Martin and the Liberals will lose the forthcoming election, be it in June or December. Let’s also assume that, after presiding over the Bloc Quebecois’s eradication of the Liberal Party in Quebec, Gilles Duceppe follows in the footsteps of Lucien Bouchard and parlays his success and profile in federal politics into leadership of the Parti Quebecois. With Jean Charest’s provincial Liberals looking extremely vulnerable and a provincial election in the offing, it isn’t difficult to imagine an emboldened Gilles Duceppe becoming the Premier of Quebec and stirring the embers of the sovereignty debate.
For federalists like me, this isn’t a pretty picture. On the one side, you’ll have a wildly successful and charismatic separatist Premier with a fresh mandate and all the momentum in the world. On the other, you have a federal government led by Stephen Harper, and an official opposition consisting of the emaciated carcass of the Liberal Party and an NDP caucus led by a man, Jack Layton, who has repeatedly indicated a desire to tear up the Clarity Act.
There isn’t, in other words, a single person capable of defending Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien’s vision of Canada and Quebec’s place within it. The possibility of new faces begins and ends with the Liberal leadership race that will surely follow Martin’s defeat as Prime Minister, but it doesn’t promise to feature any strong and articulate federalists. Pint-sized turncoat and current Minister of Public Works Scott Brison is, as his Conservative background might suggest, an avowed provincial rights enthusiast. Intellectual flavour-of-the-month Michael Ignatieff has been mentioned as a possible dark-horse candidate, but he has expressed a willingness to re-open the constitutional Pandora’s Box that almost destroyed Canada in the late 1980s under Brian Mulroney’s “progressive conservatisms”.
Chris Selley, among the most insightful and intelligent members of Canada’s blogging community (www.tartcider.com) sees it this way: “If we lose Quebec without one hell of a fight, we’ll never really recover. We’ll go down in history as a snot-nosed bunch of rich people so myopic and self-loathing that we looked in the mirror, saw one of the greatest countries in the world, shrugged, and went to bed early. But hey, since no one on either side of the floor is capable of winning the intellectual battle for Canada, except maybe (fingers crossed!) by accident, there’s not much point worrying about that either.”
It appears that Paul Martin’s brief tenure as Prime Minister will prove more damaging than anyone, including myself, imagined. I thought – no, I knew – his ambivalence and lack of vision would damage the Liberal Party and lead to a Conservative government, but I didn’t worry much because Martin’s not much of a small-l liberal himself and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would hold Harper’s social conservative agenda in check. I could even see a silver lining in the necessary turnover in the Liberal Party that Martin’s demise might produce, changes that could lead to a new, dynamic, and inspiring Liberal leader.
Instead, it appears that Martin will stop at nothing, including the dissolution of the country, to satisfy his surprisingly unquenchable thirst for power. Worse still is that it will be us, not him, who will have to pick up the pieces of our country and the consequently uncertain future that we may soon face.
Vancouver, April 24, 1015 w.