Canada’s Martin Faces An Uncertain Fate in Upcoming National Elections

  • Scandal casts shadow over Liberal Party’s prospects
  • An inept foreign policy on Haiti, with Bill Graham totally out of his depth
  • Martin’s aping of U.S. contrived policy towards Aristide makes Haiti a non-issue in the campaign
  • Martin is far from a worthy heir to former Prime Minister Chrétien’s progressive agenda

On Monday, June 28, Canadians will go to the polls in general elections called by an increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister Paul Martin, in a last-ditch bid to rejuvenate his own fading mandate. The reputation of the long-dominant Liberal Party, now led by Martin who only inherited its mantle and tattered liberal credentials as of last December, has ever since been steadily eroded by a stream of corruption charges and recent political setbacks, as well as his fawning courtship of the Bush administration. This has raised the prospect of a rare political upset in-the-making as the result of next Monday’s vote.

Martin can claim, as finance minister in the preceding Chrétien government, to have taken his country out of the red and solved a financial deficit crisis. Opinion polls nevertheless suggest that the population is shifting away from its usual Liberal leanings – a turn that can be attributed to a spreading lack of faith in the party’s listless and mediocre current leadership. Thus, the Liberal ridings upon which a party leader like Martin historically has been able to rely, are now seemingly up for grabs, with Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper being presently seen as holding a narrow lead in what has become a very tight race. Such a swing to Conservative rule, mainly on the basis of the alleged corruption scandal now hounding the Liberal Party, would represent a bombshell in Canada’s typically staid and cautious political habitat.

One of Martin’s greatest failures results from his desire to erase any important differences between Washington’s and Ottawa’s policies regarding Haiti. The new prime minister was so anxious to repair the strained relations between Canada and the U.S. under a feisty and somewhat independent Chrétien that he was prepared to pay the price of embittered feelings on the part of the Caricom nations, particularly Jamaica, as well as Montreal’s large Haitian community. In this sense, Martin and his inept foreign affairs minister, Bill Graham, perpetuated the U.S. fraud at the time of stalling, when it came to not acting with deliberate speed in propping up the Aristide rule through the use of foreign forces, and the psychological warfare against Aristide that intimidated him to the point of going into exile. This has enormously undermined Canada’s traditionally tall stature in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Martin’s Skid to Possible Defeat
Martin now faces the political gamble of his career only six months after stepping into the hot seat after an extremely successful run as finance minister in the Chrétien cabinet. Chrétien was pressured by Martin’s partisans in the Liberal Party to prematurely step down as prime minister and head of the long-reigning leader of the party last December. Since this somewhat expedited passing of the torch, a host of scandals dating from his predecessor’s rule have emerged. The most notable was a patronage and money laundering scandal entailing inflated payments for nebulously defined services provided by Québec public relations firms, which were major dollar contributors to the Liberal Party’s campaign chest.

Even though Martin, embarrassingly enough, was the financial minister at the time, he claims that he behaved in an entirely ethical manner in dealing with the scandal. He notes that, “I could have shoveled it under the carpet, and I did not.” However, the details of the scandal remain somewhat unclear, even though it does not seem to have warranted such a drastic loss of faith on the part of Martin’s Liberal backers. With the Conservatives being little better than an untried political novelty, while the resurgent Bloc Québécois solely functions in Québec and the left-of-center New Democrats (NDP) having their political base mainly in Ontario and the west, the election appears for the Conservatives to lose.

The Conservative Party’s campaign platform runs counter to longstanding Canadian opinion on many social issues, which has been patently hospitable to generous support to healthcare, gay and abortion rights. Harper also has been criticized for proposing a budget that heavily features tax cuts, which would imperil time-honored Canadian social programs like the ailing universal healthcare system, an issue of utmost concern to almost every Canadian voter. Martin has proposed an allotment of C$28 billion to the malnourished institution, whereas Harper, though planning to increase funds to healthcare, is proposing only an additional C$13 billion.

Harper’s stance on gay rights is, at best, hard to nail down; his personal belief that marriage should only join man and woman may muddle his ability to represent the more expansive attitudes of many Canadians. Though he claims he would not initiate steps to reverse the abortion rights law that has been left unchallenged in Canadian courts since 1988, he has stated that he would not block a vote to revoke it either, which some see as a backdoor attempt to erode the gains of pro-choice advocates. Harper’s equivocation on these issues alone should hurt him on election day.

The Haiti Factor
Canadians have generally opposed sending troops abroad except in bona fide peacekeeping missions. Despite widespread opposition to increased military involvement in foreign venues, Harper, who is for a strong Iraqi presence for Canada, asserts that he would allot an additional C$1.2 billion a year for the first three years and C$1.6 billion the fourth year to what he calls the presently “overstretched” military.

Under either Martin or Harper, Canada’s once independent voice on foreign policy issues stands to be further muted, as it has become more apparent that Washington may now, in effect, be speaking for both nations when it comes to Latin America. It seems that a weak and unknowledgeable Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham has become little more than a facility of Secretary of State Powell, certainly on Haiti. Granted, that Martin was totally dragooned when it came to Ottawa’s decision to contribute greater support to Iraq as well as bringing about the ouster of the former Haitian President Aristide last February, his decision not to grant additional funding to the military registered a rare recent gesture of independent thinking regarding the party’s stand on a variety of international issues. Despite the fact that neither major candidate has set forth an ideal effort internationally, voters are reduced to the bleak option whereby they, at best, will be casting their vote to decide who is the most unlikely to misrepresent the Canadian position abroad.

The leftist NDP clearly has the most principled stand on overseas issues and M.P. Jack Layton has become a viable alternative to Martin. The NDP has “demanded inquiry as to the circumstances surrounding Aristide’s departure.” All that Bill Graham could muster was the feeble observation that “we can’t focus on past quarrels, [we need to] look forward.” In the past, Canada stood as a beacon for progressive views on social matters. But the average Canadian’s fear of further corruption revelations has to be matched against the tragic consequences of risking the demise of highly respected positions on any number of key social issues, in order to prevent a damaging swing to the political right.