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This is not sunstroke: On the Hill, it's starting to feel a lot like 1979

It makes sense, under the circumstances, that someone walking around Parliament Hill on a splendid day like this in 2005 might think back to 1979.

The last time a minority government lost a vote.

The differences are obvious: December then, May now; Conservatives then, Liberals now; the New Democrats out to topple back then, propping up now.

Nor was there back then a man walking along Wellington Street with a sign telling the noon hour crowd "This Time Get It Right -- Don't Vote!"

But there are similarities, most startling among them a growing sense that Paul Martin, 2005, is starting to feel like prime minister Joe Clark, 1979.

People are embarrassed.

This is not just sunstroke talking, but comment from young Liberals who, less than a year ago, would never have imagined such a comparison.

And yet, some are starting to see the two minority leaders in similar light -- regardless of how profoundly different their circumstances were before becoming prime minister.

Martin, of course, is a mature man who was pegged virtually from childhood to one day chase, and likely seize, this job.

He was a successful businessman and then a successful cabinet minister who always had an eye firmly fixed on being prime minister, a goal he did not reach until just beyond the normal age of retirement.

Clark, on the other hand, knew only politics, never had what is always called behind the backs of politicians and teachers "a real job," and essentially fluked into his party's leadership as everyone's third choice, becoming prime minister of Canada just before his 40th birthday.

Both, however, have now been tagged with the snide condemnation of the Peter Principle. The difference here is that Martin may have reached his level of incompetence -- (presuming this to be the opinion of enough Canadians to state) -- the normal way the principle works, serving first as a very effective minister of finance before moving, seemingly effortlessly, into a head office he could not quite grasp.

Clark, quite the opposite, was first declared incompetent as prime minister, only to surprise and even excel one level down when he subsequently served as a very competent minister in both external affairs and unity.

One was widely admired before landing the big job; the other widely admired after losing the big job. Both, however, were seen as lacking when it came to serving as the lead hand on this Rubik's Cube of a country.

That Clark fell was rather expected: He was so young, so awkward, so inexperienced. That Martin has so quickly lost the confidence of so many Canadians is completely the opposite of what had been presumed for one so long groomed, so very experienced.

Clark dithered on such matters as moving the Canadian embassy in Israel and filling appointments. Martin dithered so much it became his nickname.

Clark believed so strongly in his vague "community of communities" concept that he was later ridiculed by Pierre Trudeau as a weak leader who would become nothing but a "headwaiter to the provinces" if he continued to hand off so much power.

Martin appears to believe so strongly in offending no one, no matter the cost, that he sometimes seems headed for a situation that might eventually be described as "sovereignty association for everyone."

Newfoundland and Labrador demands more and gets more. Nova Scotia gets more. Ontario demands more and gets $5.7-billion. Saskatchewan, which already received more a year ago, comes to town looking for more.

Quebec says it wants more. Alberta wants to keep more. Prince Edward Island, tomorrow's headline may well read, will threaten to separate and join the Turks and Caicos if Martin doesn't do something and, of course, he will.

And here, finally, is where there is such a dramatic difference between Joe Clark 1979 and Paul Martin 2005.

Clark chose to govern as if he had a majority. He introduced a tough budget -- finance minister John Crosbie's infamous "short-term pain for long-term gain" -- and he refused to cuddle up to the one minor party, the Creditistes, who could have saved him on a confidence motion. He also had a staff that, when it mattered most, could not count. When he lost a vote, he went on television to tell Canadians he would seek an immediate election.

Martin has governed as if he has an even smaller minority than he does. He has struck a deal with the New Democrats that cost $4.6-billion.

He produced a feel-good budget that has been tweaked into an absurdity, with ministers announcing pre-election goodies at the rate of $1-billion a day lately. His staff is obsessed with counting, imagining scenarios to take in every possibility. He has gone on TV, begging Canadians not to demand an election -- and now refuses to accept last night's vote as a defeat of his government. This is not even about who is right and who wrong. This is about two men under similar circumstances who are most similar in the one measure that spelled the end of one in 1979 and now threatens the other in 2005.

People are embarrassed.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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