By Jason Menard
Is it fair to say that Paul Martin got Kim Campbelled? And since we’re looking at former Prime Ministers, with a minority government always a sketchy and short-lived proposition, will he be able to pull a Pierre Trudeau and rise to power for one last legacy-making tour of duty?
As the Liberal leadership race slowly trudges along, time is running short for a suitable candidate to step to the fore. Big names like Frank McKenna and John Manley dropped out early in the process; others have question marks attached to their names – such as Michael Ignatieff, Belinda Stronach, and former Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae; and others, like Joe Fontana, David McGuinty, and Ken Dryden may choose to play the long-shot role in a wide-open race.
But time is not on the Liberals’ side. And if Stephen Harper attempts to be too aggressive with his budget and force a non-confidence vote, Canadians could find themselves heading back to the polls for the third time in two years. And, for Martin, the third time may prove to be the charm.
After 10 years of waiting – with a couple in exile – and a stellar reputation as a tough, but fiscally prescient, finance minister, Martin swam up to the head seat in the wake of Jean Chrétien’s departure from the PMO. Of course, as we found out, the waves created by the Chrétien government ended up drowning Martin and served as the anchor that dragged him and his party down.
Like Kim Campbell, who’s known less for being the first female Prime Minister, and more for being the final nail in the Progressive Conservative party’s coffin, Martin will be remembered for the brevity of his political reign. His entire Prime Ministerial legacy will be defined by his predecessor’s actions and how they stained his tenure.
That is, unless he gets another chance. If an election is called sooner than later, the Liberal Party might have to look to its past to resurrect its future. And it’s not unprecedented, even within the party’s own history.
Back in 1979, with a sliding economy, a public rapidly tiring of his perceived attitude, and increasing debt, Pierre Trudeau was forced to call an election in 1979. After suffering a defeat to Joe Clark, Trudeau announced his retirement, only to return to power after a vote of no confidence brought down the Tory minority. Trudeau’s return to majority prominence offered him the opportunity to polish his reputation, forge a new Constitution ratified by nine of the 10 provinces, and go into history as one of the country’s most dynamic leaders – love him or hate him. After a self-proclaimed long walk in the snow, Trudeau retired, on his own terms, in 1984.
Martin, on the other hand, spent the majority of his time fighting off the Mr. Dithers label that was placed on him by The Economist. However, a more apt title would have been The Fireman, as the beleaguered Prime Minister spent his 27 months putting out the myriad of blazes left behind by his predecessor: AdScam and the Gomery Report, Income Trust, and – of course – the perceived culture of entitlement that 13 years of unchallenged leadership had created within the Grit rank-and-file.
Now, the opportunity is there for Paul Martin to return to the ranks of the Liberal leadership, brandishing a humbled sword and commitment to honesty in the battle against a rapidly beleaguered Conservative Party with no natural ally in a fractured House of Commons. While the Liberals of the last Parliament could find some affiliation with the NDP and left-leaning views of the Bloc, the Conservatives are on their own island. Their skills in consensus-building will be put to the test if they are able to withstand the early assaults that will greet their minority status.
Of course, the other parties will also have to gauge the public’s appetite for yet another expensive election campaign. They’ll have to determine whether a less-than-ideal budget is more appealing than being blamed for causing even more political fatigue within the electorate. And, depending on how aggressively Prime Minister Harper plays his cards, they may have to ante up earlier in the game than they would like.
If that’s the case, look for Martin to be called back to the table, because no one else has shown that they’re ready to go all-in. They say that politics is a game and, for the foreseeable future, the Canadian version is looking more and more like a high-stakes came of poker.
And maybe, like Trudeau before him, Martin will get the chance to reshape his legacy into one that’s more appealing to him.
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