Wagging the Tale
The Martin Meltdown
By Phyllis Wagg

During recent weeks, media pundits have been astounded by the rapid fall in support for the Liberal Party under its new leader, Paul Martin. They point their fingers at the accumulated baggage of an administration that has been in power for 10 years, citing a long list of examples of fiscal mismanagement. These run from the HRDC "boondoggle" to the latest sponsorship program fiasco.

Certainly these are factors. In my opinion, however, the fault lies with the prime minister himself.

He talks too much.

When it became evident that there would be a change in leadership in the Liberal Party, Paul Martin was the obvious front-runner for the job. He had been Chretien's right hand in balancing the budget and starting to pay down the national debt. The public opinion polls showed his support as topping that for even the prime minister. After all, Canadians were getting tired of a prime minister who spoke neither official language very well.

On the other hand, Paul Martin sounded good. Virtually everyone commented on how good Martin sounded. Not only that, he seemed to say all the right things. If anything, Paul Martin could be confident in how he sounded.

At least that seemed to be the general consensus.

There were a few Canadians who had some problems with Martin. He often seemed to say the right thing and then do the opposite.

Remember the time he talked about tightening the belt of the federal government and, instead, put the provinces in a straight-jacket? Or when he promised to protect social programs but then cut them in order to reduce the deficit? How about when he promised to cut taxes for the poor but made sure their cheques were a bit lighter by increasing pension deductions?

Granted, when it came to clarifying an error made in the value of government contracts with Canada Steamship Lines (the company he held in what Joe Clark referred to as a "venetian blind trust"), Martin remained silent for months.

That seemed out of character for such a talker.

Since becoming prime minister, Paul Martin has hardly had time to breathe, he has been talking so much. As early as the day after his selection as leader of the Liberal Party, he organized an informal chit-chat with the premiers at the Grey Cup Game. He has not stopped talking since. Town halls, press conferences, interviews, scrums, talk shows, and radio call-in shows have all drawn the prime minister like a magnet.

One would almost believe he really likes the sound of his own voice.

When a prime minister becomes his own press secretary, however, he runs the risk of saying too much. That became evident during a press conference following the RCMP search of the Ottawa Citizen and the home of one of its reporters, with regard to government leaks in the Arar case. When asked whether he thought the reporter was a criminal for having publicized private records, he replied, "Of course not."

Suddenly, the prime minister, the top law-maker in the nation, the boss over law enforcement, was acting as both judge and jury. That one faux pas would probably have been lost in the fog of the media outrage over the idea that they might not be above the law.

But Martin kept on talking.

When it came to covering up the government mistake on its business with the CSL, Martin thought he could lose the fact in a barrage of words. Press conferences broke out all over Parliament Hill. Unfortunately for Martin, it did not work. The words describing the error managed to sneak out of the verbal barrage.

The reaction to the release of the auditor general's report, however, unleashed the most amazing flow of prime ministerial rhetoric. He was angry, outraged, going to get to the bottom of it through a public inquiry, and on and on. Before long he was blaming everything on "a small group" of 14 public servants.

"When they broke those laws and those rules, they did not come to cabinet and ask to break those rules," he railed.

Duh, Mr. Prime Minister.

The next day he had extended his circle of blame to politicians and staff around the former prime minister, while claiming that his relations with said former prime minister were not good and he was not part of that group. Then he claimed that he was going to get to the bottom of what happened in the sponsorship program and that the Canadian voters should judge him on that promise.

He did promise to solve the democratic deficit in the House of Commons by adopting new rules and making government more open. Hadn't he done that by expanding the number of Liberal MPs sworn to secrecy as members of the Privy Council? Weren't Liberal MPs given more independence to vote as their conscience dictated?

Well, maybe not on more funding for the already bloated system for registering long guns.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Paul Martin talks too much.

With specialties in political science and history, Dr. Wagg has taught at Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. She writes from her home on Cape Breton Island.