Poor Paul Martin. He's an honourable man, no doubt about it. He's a likeable man, too. But whether the election comes two months or eight months from now scarcely matters. He's a lame duck, and soon he'll be a dead duck.
Mr. Martin might squeak back in with a minority. But even if Stephen Harper suddenly sprouts horns and a tail, that's the very best that Mr. Martin can do. And after that, his days as leader will be numbered. The Liberals will start casting around for the saviour who can restore their God-given right to majority rule. No doubt they've already begun. The people in the back rooms know that Mr. Martin is already yesterday's man.
You've got to feel sorry for the guy. He wasn't cut out for the muck and slime of politics. His problem is that he's just too darn nice. He doesn't have the snake-oil charm of a Mulroney, or the street-fighting instincts of a Chrétien. He has no taste for banging people's heads together. He'd rather fly around the world, to Budapest and Ouagadougou, and leave the dirty work to other people.
The trouble is that down in the trenches, the Liberal Party hasn't really changed, and the voters know it. What the Liberals do is swap favours for power, using the public purse. The process is seldom so naked and corrupt as it got in Quebec, where, according to one party operative in confessional mode, the best way for a lawyer to become a judge was to work on Liberal political campaigns. But the principle's the same.
Even as Mr. Martin was polishing his TV appeal to the voters, his government was busy dispensing favours. That's what Joe Volpe's announcement to vastly expand immigration for people's grandmas and grandpas was all about. It's terrible public policy. But Liberals badly need votes, and that's a surefire way to get them. As Mr. Martin takes the high road, his party takes the low road.
The immigration system has been thoroughly politicized in other ways. Liberal MPs get preferential access to temporary residency permits, which are issued at ministerial discretion to people who've been denied entry to Canada. They are supposed to be used only in exceptional cases, but in 2003, we dispensed more than 12,000 of them. Nearly half the people who got these permits had earlier been rejected because of criminal convictions in their country of origin. As the Conservatives' Diane Ablonczy told Globe reporter Michael Den Tandt, everyone in the House of Commons understands how the system really works. "Every time you pull on the thread of these permits, you find political influence, and a kickback in the form of political support of some kind or another."
Mr. Martin may be able to reform the party machine in Quebec, but he can't reform this mess. After all, temporary residency permits mean more votes for Liberals, too. Instead, he'll be busy handing out more bags of cash to everyone in sight, just as he did to Danny Williams during the last election campaign. And the longer he's allowed to cling to power, the more bags he'll hand out. Forget governing. That's impossible now. The Liberals have turned Ottawa into a giant ATM machine, and hope we will remember when we turn out to vote.
The most fashionable word in politics these days is "brand," as if the parties were dish soap and the leaders were some kind of running shoe. Can Mr. Martin polish up the tarnished Liberal brand? Can he persuade the voters that he is 99.9-per-cent pure?
But voters are tired of being marketed to. And even though most believe that Mr. Martin is 99.9-per-cent pure, they believe other things about him, too.
For example, although he is a genuine idealist, he can't really execute. Everything he says is much bigger than everything he ultimately delivers.
Even his old pal Bono isn't very happy with him, because he made too-large promises about foreign aid that he couldn't quite deliver. Nobody doubts Mr. Martin's idealism or his good intentions. What they doubt is his ability to get things done.
And in the end, it's not scandal but his own shortcomings that will defeat him -- that, and the widespread feeling that his party deserves a time out, so that it can stand in a corner for a while and reflect on the error of its ways.
None of this means that Stephen
Harper's going to cruise to power. He's got a branding problem, too. He showed what it was the other night. He came on like an attack dog, not a statesman. The way he foamed at the mouth was a little scary. In these parts, for what it's worth, people are horrified by the prospect of a quick election. They agree with Mr. Martin that the Gomery inquiry should be allowed to do its job. And they also hate their choices. Mr. Harper makes Torontonians so queasy, I doubt he'll win a single riding in the 416 area code.
Around here, it's safe to say that Stephen Harper remains Paul Martin's single biggest asset.
But if I were Mr. Martin, I wouldn't take too much comfort in that. A lot of lifelong Liberals I know say that no matter when the election comes, they're just going to stay home. firstname.lastname@example.org