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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

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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?

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