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Will voters heed PM's positive message?

OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF

TORONTO

as a road test for a campaign vehicle that may not even get out of the garage.

Paul Martin hit the pre-election trail yesterday with a cornucopia of ideas on how he will fight Stephen Harper in what is widely anticipated to be a spring election. Better daycare, a more robust foreign policy, help for aboriginals and sales of goods to the emerging economies of China and India all figured into the collection of pledges the Prime Minister made before The Globe and Mail's editorial board.

But with the sponsorship scandal still bursting around him, will Canadians take note when he brings the campaign onto the highway for real?

For the first 15 minutes of a one-hour question-and-answer session, a sometimes combative Mr. Martin tried to lay out the campaign he had planned to run before the inquiry headed by Mr. Justice John Gomery put his government into so much turmoil.

The first part, apparently, will be an effort to resuscitate the line he uttered to some good effect at the Liberal Party's convention this winter: Promises made, promises kept. The second will be a stab at comparing a potential administration run by a dour Stephen Harper with the glass-is-half-full kind of government Mr. Martin is promising.

Perhaps sensitive to the opinion of some that he dithered away the 16 months since he became prime minister, Mr. Martin opened the session by listing many things he has accomplished.

Referring to his tenure as the first 500 days in office, the Prime Minister rhymed off the health care deal with the provinces, the recent meeting in Crawford, Tex., with President George W. Bush, the effort to bring Canadians a national daycare program, a deal on climate change and a continued commitment to fiscal prudence.

"We said we were going to do it and we did it," he said.

Why, then, he was asked, despite these significant accomplishments, has the public not shown its appreciation? Why, even before the Gomery inquiry, did the polls hardly move?

Faulty communication, came the answer, before the PM added a more salient point: The sponsorship scandal, he noted, hangs over it all.

He's done his best, he said, to clean up the mess, appointing the inquiry and pledging to rid the party and the government of anybody involved in the scandal.

"And I think if anybody actually looks at what we have done and where we are going, if they're fair, they'll say 'okay, this was the government's objectives, these were the things that they really wanted to bring in and that we have succeeded in doing that.' "

Unfortunately for Mr. Martin, the scandal that obscures the past will almost certainly darken the campaign he intends to run.

Even his own advisers acknowledge that in last year's campaign, in which the sponsorship scandal played a role, although it was not as prominent as it is now, Canadians didn't want to hear about fixing health care for a generation or repairing the democratic deficit. It took three weeks before the public was ready to hear the Liberal criticism of Mr. Harper and the Tories as not-ready-for-prime-time. Resurrecting that bogeyman may be tougher this time.

Some of the issues Canadians will hear about in the next month or two will sound familiar. Mr. Martin says he wants to focus on child care, Canada's new role in the world and ensuring that the federal government doesn't give away too much power to the provinces -- a likelihood, he believes, under Mr. Harper.

His government will also concentrate on increasing trade with India and China.

"[There are] massive middle classes in China and India, bigger than in the United States," Mr. Martin said. "And there's no way if we're not smart, that we can't take huge advantage of that."

Still, even the PM appears to know where he'll be starting this campaign.

Asked at one point yesterday whether he accepted the characterization by one columnist as a "dead man walking," the Prime Minister said he has no regrets.

"I certainly don't buy that," he said.

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