RM: Articles by Murray Dobbin

September 11, 2003

Aboard Paul's bandwagon

By Murray Dobbin

Millions of Canadians seem willing — even eager — to get a chance to vote for Paul Martin whenever he calls an election. That he will win the Liberal leadership and be in a position to call an election by next February is a foregone conclusion. But why Canadians are so eager to vote for Paul Martin remains a mystery if you compare what he did as finance minister to what Canadians say their values are.

Here is a man who instituted the largest cuts to Canada's most cherished social programs of any politician in history — including the reviled Brian Mulroney. Then, in the year 2000 when he had huge surpluses — $193 billion over five years — which he could have used to restore those programs he instituted the largest tax breaks in Canadian history: $100 billion. Seventy-seven per cent of the personal income tax cut went to the wealthiest eight per cent of Canadians.

We have now had several months to hear from Paul Martin about the kind of Canada he wants to create and lead once he wins a mandate from Canadians. Last year, in an interview with Time (which named him their Man of the Year) Martin said he wanted to change his CEO approach to governing: “We don’t need managing. We need building. That's why I think the next decade is going to be the most exciting decade in which you or I have lived.” That's pretty heady stuff for a man who took Canada back to 1949 levels of spending, and boasted about it.

The more you examine what Paul Martin says the less substance there seems to be. In speech after speech to his party supporters in the spring, Martin repeated this statement: “This leadership race is about the future and the changes we need to make as a country. It is about embracing new ideas and charting a new course. I want to lead a new government with a renewed sense of purpose, a sharper focus and a clearer plan — a government unafraid to change and eager to turn the page and look to the future.”

What on earth does this mean? This statement would be almost impossible to satirize simply because it reads like satire. It is totally devoid of any content.

A “renewed sense of purpose,” could mean anything — from restoring Ottawa's share of Medicare funding to its historic level of 25 per cent to the federal government getting out of funding Medicare altogether. What purpose is Paul Martin talking about? Which is more likely? Judging from Paul Martin's record we would have to conclude that he will “renew” the purpose stated in his watershed 1995 budget. In that budget, Martin radically reduced Canada's share of the Medicare bill to 14 per cent. And in every budget after that — even in years when he had huge surpluses — he refused to restore long-term funding. Instead he provided one-off contributions or five-year plans. Medicare is still as insecure as it was after the 1995 budget. In his many promises of the past few months he has not once stated that he will keep Jean Chretien's promise of restoration of long term funding.

So just what are Martin's priorities in the area of social programs — an area that Canadians say is one of their highest priorities? Well, according to Martin's statements at a major social policy conference — hosted by the famous Caledon Institute on its tenth anniversary in the fall of 2002 — it is an extremely modest agenda. According to those in attendance, the future prime minister has three policy areas he wants to act on: people with disabilities, aboriginal issues, and community economic development.

Now all of these are very important, particularly the first two where Canada has a poor and terrible record respectively. But when pressed on other larger issues, Martin said, “You know, I can only do so much even if I have a couple of terms, and I want to pick a small number of issues that I can really have an impact on.”

So that's it. In eight years we can expect Paul Martin to deal with these three social policy issues. That means that restoring Medicare, bringing funding of universities back to 1995 levels, and reinstituting the principle of universality to these and other programs (eliminated in 1996) are simply not on the agenda, period.

There is no question that as Canada approaches 2004 the country faces both great challenges and amazing opportunities. Our largest trading partner by far, the United States, has launched itself on a new and dangerous course of unilateralism in which it ignores its allies when it wants to and demands support from them when it needs it.

But there are very positive signs for Canada and nation building. The period of deficits and increasing debt are now history. The Conference Board of Canada predicts increasing surpluses for the next 20 years — peaking in 2020 at $85 billion — enough to rid the country of all its debt and to not only restore social programs, but add new ones like child care, pharmacare and home care. And Canadians clearly want their federal government to go in this direction.

Ekos, the polling firm that does the most extensive values polling in the country put the following question to a large sample of Canadians: “If you were Prime Minister for a day, and had to pick an overall national goal for Canada to achieve by the year 2010, which of the following would you choose?” Here is how Canadians responded:

  • Best quality of life in the world: 66 per cent
  • Best health care system in the world: 64 per cent
  • Lowest incidence of child poverty in the world: 62 per cent
  • Best- educated population in the world: 57 per cent
  • Eliminate public debt: 50 per cent
  • Lowest overall tax burden of major industrialized countries: 45 per cent
  • Highest productivity level of major industrialized countries: 45 per cent
  • Most innovative/high-tech country in the world: 35 per cent
  • Highest standard of living of industrialized nations: 30 per cent

Canadians who remember what Paul Martin did as finance minister will recognize that these values are virtually the reverse of the values that were reflected in his budgets for nine years. Our future prime minister deliberately set out in his 1995 budget to reduce the role of the federal government in shaping the nation. Our health care system deteriorated, child poverty increased by 60 per cent, tuition fees more than doubled. His priorities were spending cuts, reduced taxes, debt reduction and increasing productivity by driving down wages.

Nothing Paul Martin has said in his leadership campaign suggests that he has changed his values or his priorities. Before jumping on Paul’s bandwagon, Canadians would be well-advised to think about where it would take us.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin - CEO for Canada published by James Lorimer in 2003 is in bookstores across Canada now.

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