||A Review of: Paul Martin, The Power of Ambition
by Sharon Abron Drache
Veteran journalist John Gray, who has worked at The Globe and Mail
for more than 20 years, most recently as national correspondent,
brought his outstanding credentials to the task of writing an
enigmatic biography of Paul Martin, before Martin succeeded Jean
Chrtien as Canada's 21st Prime Minister.
Please keep in mind that The Power of Ambition, released on September
27, 2003, was completed when our current Prime Minister was still
the new leader of the Liberal party, and also that he is referred
to throughout Gray's book simply as Mr. Martin. For the purposes
of this review, we shall do the same.
Gray describes Mr. Martin at age 65 as a work-in-progress, a conundrum
that has fascinated and frustrated Paul Martin admirers and supporters,
and it is this aspect of Mr. Martin's personality that Gray attempts
to track and comprehend, giving readers a measure of the man.
Gray's most comforting refrain is the constant reminder that our
current Mr. Martin is the son of Paul Martin senior, a small l-liberal
reformer, dominant on the national political scene for more than
30 years, who helped change the face of Canada beginning in 1935
when he was first elected to the House of Commons as the MP for
>From day one Mr. Martin's father agitated for reform, beginning
with his strong support for organized labour. Upon entering the
cabinet as Secretary of State in 1945, he introduced the Citizenship
Act. Until then there had been no such animal as a Canadian citizen,
and those who took pride in their identification as "British"
did not appreciate their change in status. Within 18 months he
became Minister of Health and Welfare, winning approval for Old Age
Security reforms, and national medical care insurance. In his memoirs
A Very Public Life (two volumes, 1983, 1986), Mr. Martin's father
wrote: "I was no out-and-out radical, but rather saw myself
as a tenacious small "l" liberal. Our party had to move
steadily to the goal of social justice. If it stood still, it would
perish....Yet most of St. Laurent's cabinet, including the prime
minister, prized soundness of administration and budgetary surpluses
as much as popularity. I kept reminding the finance minister of the
budgetary surplus, imploring him to move quickly to help our older
It is haunting that our Mr. Martin was hired to create a budgetary
surplus, when he served as Finance Minister for Jean Chrtien for a
run of almost nine years (1993-2002)-precisely that which his father
wrestled with and fought to spend for the sake of social programs.
In a chapter which Gray calls, "The Grand Alliance", which
could be subtitled, "The Odd Couple", Gray outlines how
Mr. Martin and Mr. Chrtien-two leaders and decision makers from
totally different backgrounds, who had totally different ideas about
governance-learned to agree.
Canada was burdened with a deficit that threatened its economic
stability; it was about to lose its credibility in the world's
financial markets and go the way of Mexico or Argentina. Because
of the interest charges, the federal debt was growing out of
control-446 billion in 1993, $508 billion in 1994-at a rate of
$85,000 per minute. So, after Mr. Martin's 1994 experiment with the
budget, which entailed bold chopping of unemployment insurance and
defense spending, Mr. Martin's 1995 budget cut federal expenditures
everywhere, and none of the social programs (which he claimed to
believe in as strongly as his father) were spared.
The goal was to deliver the Liberal's 1993 election promise to
reduce the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product by the
fiscal year 1996-1997.
Brutally frank with Canadians, Mr. Martin described "the cancer
of compound interest" as "the money that cannot go to
social programs, cannot go to child poverty, cannot go to science
and technology, cannot go to the lowering of taxes. It robs this
country of its potential. It robs our children of their future."
And, as an addendum: "That increase in interest rates just
meant that we didn't have a penny for any of the things my dad
believed in .... I could just see the federal government essentially
becoming the tax collector on Monday so that we could pay the
interest costs on Tuesday, and that was going to be the end of it.
And that's the way we were going...."
Gray's assessment of our current Prime Minister is far from
hagiography; candidly Gray suggests that the gruelling process of
getting back the federal surplus was only Part One of Mr. Martin's
As his father's chief admirer (he spoke with the senior Mr. Martin
on the phone 4-5 times a day), our Mr. Martin insisted on carving
out a non-political existence for himself upon his graduation from
studies in philosophy and law.
He became a successful business executive, rising to the vice-presidency
of planning and development at Power Corp in 1973, and moving on
with a Power Corps partner in 1981 to buy Canada Steamship Lines.
>From 1965, when he graduated from U of T Law School, until l987
when he announced that he intended to run in Montreal's riding of
La Salle, he appeared to have absolutely no political aspirations
Here is where biographer Gray's tracking of the conundrum of Paul
Martin yields some surprises. Unlike most Finance Ministers, Paul
Martin did not conduct business as usual at Esplanade Laurier, the
offices of the federal Department of Finance. He made all his
decisions by consensus, and Gray spends several pages describing
just how this time-consuming process worked. There are names of
many senior civil servants, who put in workdays from early in the
morning until midnight. David Dodge, then-deputy minister of finance
and now Governor of the Bank of Canada, was one of those senior
officials. Their finance meetings were desperately practical, while
the process of arriving at practicality consisted of a series of
debates. Gray's implicit assumption is that Mr. Martin hated being
the dispenser of bitter medicine, and that he wanted to make certain
that all Canadians understood why their government was acting so
Gray's intimate knowledge of the players in Ottawa who helped Mr.
Martin make his decisions is available for readers; what is not
available is how many senior civil servants, political officials,
and official outside consultants refuse to be quoted. One individual
who never seems to mind is Toronto Liberal MP John Godfrey. And
there are a few gems from the lips of Eddie Goldenberg, Chrtien's
most senior policy adviser, and the most trusted person in Chrtien's
At the end of the biography, Gray's work-in-progress continues to
unfold. After a gruelling nine years, Mr. Martin as finance minister
eliminated Canada's debt to create a budgetary surplus. The big
question remains: what will Paul Martin, Canada's 21st Prime Minister,
do with the fall-out of a legacy that was his very own creation?
As our new PM took his oath of office on December 12, 2003, he
carried the folded flag that flew at half-mast the day his father
died. If that's a hint of what is to come, Gray has provided readers
with the necessary clues: our social programs will not only remain
intact-they will be enhanced.