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Frazzled in the forum: A besieged PM hangs on As he takes flak from Gomery and mounting criticism that his government is adrift, Martin may soon have to find the strength to fight another election

As he takes flak from Gomery and mounting criticism that his government is adrift, Martin may soon have to find the strength to fight another election

With a report from Jane Taber

Some say he is not sleeping well. Others report the temper tantrums are getting worse. He drinks massive quantities of coffee. Some of the people around him are beginning to worry about his health.

But you'd be crazy to count him out.

Paul Martin's senior advisers, angry at having lost control of the political agenda, are determined to get it back. They didn't ask for the election that is being thrust upon them, but they are confident that they can win it.

Maybe they will. But the fact remains that the Liberals are struggling with more than the ever-spreading fallout from the sponsorship scandal. They must also fight a growing impression that the government is adrift, its agenda frustrated by a minority Parliament and by a Prime Minister who wanted to take on everything and ended up achieving very little.

Mr. Martin's supporters maintain that the impression is deeply unfair, that the Liberal track record is impressive, given the circumstances, and that the government's agenda remains focused and on track.

They say it is the media, and not the public, who are asking the question: So whatever happened to Paul Martin?

After all, he was heir apparent for so long. A brilliant policy wonk with a human touch. A new-age Liberal with old-Liberal credentials. An Anglo from Montreal sired by a Francophone from Ontario. And perhaps the most successful finance minister in Canadian history.

Today, he is viewed by many as indecisive, meddling, undisciplined. The Economist's appellation of "Mr. Dithers" was the unkindest cut, but it only entrenched a widespread impression.

"My view is that you [the media] misjudged Martin," says a long-time supporter of Jean Chrétien, former prime minister and present political adversary. "All the things you thought were great, the brainstorming . . . it was because he couldn't make a decision."

But that may be simplistic. The government's defenders can point to a raft of decisions -- in health care, foreign policy, defence, cities, child care.

Treasury Board President Reg Alcock believes Mr. Martin "has probably driven, or started, more change than any prime minister in the same period of time."

So why is this government not seen as an agent of, as Mr. Martin loves to put it, transformative change?

His response is surprisingly candid. "I think we managed expectations badly."

Mr. Alcock remembers Mr. Martin's visionary "politics of achievement" speech when he won the Liberal leadership back in November, 2003. That speech, he thinks, was typical of Mr. Martin's unfettered enthusiasm for imagining the future and then changing the present to prepare for it.

"He gets genuinely excited by this stuff," Mr. Alcock says. "He loves nothing better than to talk about it. So you get this 'the world can be different,' and then you are faced with reality."

Is that what happened to Paul Martin: creating unreasonable expectations and then failing to meet them?

Or was the problem with what is known as the Board?

In the Prime Minister's Office, according to one theory, there are football players and members of the chess club. Actually, it's more subtle than that. The same people -- Chief of Staff Tim Murphy, Communications Director Scott Reid, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Littler, Foreign Policy Adviser Jonathan Fried, collectively known as the Board -- sometimes act like they belong to a chess club, concerned with policy and the philosophy of government, and sometimes like football players, ready to tackle anyone who crosses them, whether it's an opposition critic or a wayward cabinet minister.

The most oft-reported criticism of the Centre is that its members are control freaks devoted to a horizontal power structure. That is, the Prime Minister's Office insists on managing every file, every controversy, every announcement. But its tight-knit members, many of whom have been with Mr. Martin since his days as an MP in the late 1980s, don't distinguish among themselves who is responsible for what. The result, say critics, is a PMO that leaps into everything and accomplishes little.

"Flat management doesn't work," says one Liberal strategist. There are too many deputy chiefs of staff, too many opinions floating around, and a Prime Minister who tends to change his position depending on who he talked to last.

But similar criticisms have been directed toward every prime minister's and premier's office in the country for decades. Besides, any government, of any stripe, takes a while to find its feet.

"I think we had to learn, too," Mr. Murphy acknowledges. All in all, he thinks "we are doing better than realists could have expected, and not as well as optimists hoped."

Mr. Murphy also disputes another criticism of the Martin administration: that it has a weak cabinet. All of the star candidates that Liberals trumpeted in the last election went straight into cabinet: Industry Minister David Emerson; Social Development Minister Ken Dryden; Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh; Transportation Minister Jean Lapierre. All have struggled.

The most frustrating example of this failure, for the Liberals, is Mr. Dryden. The former hockey star is widely admired within the caucus and bureaucracy for his intelligence and personal integrity.

But he was put in Social Development to craft a national child-care strategy that would provide publicly funded spaces under national guidelines promoting accessibility and educational development. This meant negotiating with his provincial counterparts, a pool of sharks who have devoured far tougher political hides. Although the government is anxious to make an announcement, Mr. Dryden so far has come up with little more than a proposal to give the provinces money for child care, with virtually no strings attached. That won't wash.

But then, it took years to negotiate the original medicare agreement, and the Liberals believe a national child-care program is no less ambitious.

"We are pregnant with the possibility of success in child care," Mr. Murphy says.

Besides, however much the Prime Minister's staff and cabinet might have influenced his tenure, Paul Martin's government will be judged by his performance, with all its strengths and weaknesses. In the end, it will be Paul Martin that happened to Paul Martin.

The Prime Minister has always been strong on consultation before action, considers process as important as substance, prefers direct communication to following protocol. He will, for example, pick up the phone and call a bureaucrat two or three rungs below the deputy minister, seeking information. Mr. Martin's supporters see this as an engaged executive bypassing channels to get things done; his critics say it confuses and angers the bureaucracy, where, according to several accounts, morale is at a nadir among the senior ranks.

When accused of dithering, Mr. Martin's supporters recite a string of accomplishments: The federal-provincial health accord; the agreement on a new equalization formula, and on resource revenues for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; substantially increased funding for defence; a plan -- albeit an incomplete one -- to implement the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

And steady progress is under way on another priority: improving the health and education of Canada's aboriginal peoples. Whatever else, a spring election would frustrate that progress, which is supposed to culminate in a first ministers summit on aboriginal affairs in October or November.

"A spring election could be an enormous loss for First Nations and all of Canada," says Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "We have invested thousands of hours in consultations with the federal government, resulting in concrete action plans and proposals that could transform the quality of life for First Nations people. If Parliament were dissolved, this momentum and goodwill would be in danger of being lost."

The Prime Minister's supporters maintain that a minority Parliament and political opportunism by the opposition are frustrating an ambitious, progressive agenda. Others say no, the Liberals are frustrating their own agenda, mostly because, above and beyond any other faults, Paul Martin suffers from a fatal lack of political instincts. Nowhere, they would say, was that more evident than in his decision to launch a public inquiry into the sponsorship program.

The revelations from the Gomery inquiry, some of which may not even be true, are killing the Liberals in the polls and intensifying turmoil between the Chrétien and Martin camps. The final report of Mr. Justice John Gomery, whatever it says, could destroy the Liberal Party in Quebec for at least two elections. Calling the inquiry, say Chrétien Liberals, might be the biggest mistake a Liberal prime minister ever made.

Yet, had Mr. Martin not called the inquiry, voter anger over an alleged cover-up could have cost the Liberals the last election, never mind the next one. Besides, whatever the political cost, wasn't it simply the right thing to do?

Toronto Liberal MP John McKay acknowledges that Mr. Martin's decision to call the Gomery inquiry could cost him the prime ministership.

"Let's face it, the Prime Minister took a very principled decision when he first became Prime Minister and that has become a costly decision.

"Ultimately I find it quite distressing in terms of maturity of political dialogue in this country. This government has done some pretty important things, and I'm quite distressed that it may not actually get an opportunity to see those things come to fruition."

For Reg Alcock, the fallout from the Gomery inquiry represents a painful irony: "He defined an incredibly aggressive agenda to reconstruct politics," Mr. Alcock says. Instead "his whole time has been spent reacting to the actions of others."

Whatever will become of Paul Martin?

The Liberals believe they have a shot at winning a June election. Polls are volatile, and voters may punish Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for forcing a premature vote. Besides, they argue, public opinion is being shaped by the opinions of political and media elites. But once an election campaign is under way, voters will start to think for themselves.

The Martinites will tell you that they are governing "on the numbers." Liberal strategist John Duffy explains it this way: The public-policy establishment promotes a mostly conservative agenda emphasizing a larger role for the private sector in health care, deeper North American integration, and an emphasis on postsecondary education.

But Mr. Martin chose instead to implement what polls ("the numbers") say are the priorities of the general public: fixing the public health-care system, concentrating on education in the early years (hence, the child-care program) and reversing the decline of the urban environment.

"Right-of-centre elites think we're wrong, wrong, wrong," Mr. Duffy contends, "because we are on the public's agenda, not the elites' agenda. But the public likes this stuff."

The Liberal strategy is to neutralize the Gomery effect by demonstrating contrition and a determination to get to the bottom of the affair. Thursday night's television address, and this weekend's media blitz by the Prime Minister -- The Sorry as Hell Tour, a sequel to last year's Mad as Hell Tour -- are the first steps. Then the Liberals will try to shift the emphasis, focusing on their social agenda and contrasting it with the Conservative plan for tax cuts and closer co-operation with the United States.

It just might work. Except, as some of them quietly admit, the Liberals have a major handicap: They are the only party that doesn't want an election. The Bloc Québécois and the NDP hope to make significant gains, while the Conservatives hope to form a government.

Given the Liberals' internal divisions and uncertain track record, the question will be whether the party and the Prime Minister can summon the psychic energy needed to sustain a six-week election campaign that delivers, at the least, a Liberal minority.

To deprive Paul Martin of the chance to complete the agenda he set himself and the country, his supporters believe, would be a terrible loss for Canada.

"I wish people could see through the doors of cabinet and how committed he is to an agenda. He has an agenda of care and he is almost immune to political consideration," said Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri.

"When you raise political considerations with him, he brushes you aside and he demands to know the right thing to do from a good policy perspective."

Mr. Alcock describes a leader who will "chase you around the table 50 times" making up his mind, but who is "serene" once that decision is made. The Prime Minister has laid out his proposal to delay an election until February, after Judge Gomery issues his report. But if the opposition is determined to fight it now, Mr. Alcock is certain Mr. Martin is ready.

"I don't know where he gets the energy. I know he gets it."

But the odds are formidable. And it's not just the Gomery inquiry and the debatable legacy.

"There is, in the mind of the people, a degree of fatigue with any government," Mr. Alcock observes.

After all, "the last election was the fourth time in a row, without interruption, in which we asked for a mandate. The next time will be the fifth."

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