November 2003: He's a Leader -- In Social Cutbacks

Where will Martin’s bandwagon take us? Do we really want to go there?
November 1, 2003

Millions of Canadians seem willing--even eager--to get a chance to vote for Paul Martin whenever he calls the next federal election. That he would win the Liberal leadership and be in a position to call an election by next February was never in doubt. But why Canadians seem so eager to vote for a Martin-led Liberal party remains a mystery if you compare what he did as finance minister to what Canadians say their values are.

Here is a man who instituted the largest cuts to Canada’s most cherished social programs of any politician in history-- including the reviled Brian Mulroney. Then, in the year 2000 when he had huge surpluses--$193 billion over five years--which he could have used to restore those programs, he instead handed out the largest tax breaks in Canadian history: $100 billion. And more than three-quarters of that huge personal income tax cut (77%) went to the wealthiest 8% percent of Canadians!

We’ve had more than a year now to hear from Martin about the kind of Canada he wants to create and lead once he wins a mandate from Canadians. Last year, in an interview with Time (which named him their Canadian Man of the Year), Martin said he wanted to change his CEO approach to governing: “We don’t need managing. We need building. That’s why I think the next decade is going to be the most exciting decade in which you or I have lived.” That’s pretty heady stuff for a man who took Canada back to 1949 levels of social spending--and boasted about it.

The more you examine what Paul Martin says, the less substance there seems to be. In speech after speech to his party supporters last spring, he repeated this statement: "This leadership race is about the future and the changes we need to make as a country. It is about embracing new ideas and charting a new course. I want to lead a new government with a renewed sense of purpose, a sharper focus, and a clearer plan--a government unafraid to change and eager to turn the page and look to the future."

What on Earth does all this mean? It’s almost impossible to satirize simply because it reads like satire. It is totally devoid of any content.

A “renewed sense of purpose” could mean anything--from restoring Ottawa’s share of Medicare funding to its historic level of 25% to the federal government getting out of funding Medicare altogether. What purpose is Martin talking about? Which is more likely? Judging from his record, we would have to conclude that he will “renew” the purpose stated in his watershed 1995 budget. In that budget, Martin radically reduced Canada’s share of Medicare’s funding to barely 14%. And in every budget after that--even in years when he had huge surpluses--he refused to restore long-term funding. Instead he provided one-off contributions or five-year plans. Medicare is still as insecure as it was after his 1995 budget. In his many promises of the past few months, he has not once stated that he will keep Jean Chrétien’s promise to restore long-term funding.

So just what are Martin’s priorities in the area of social programs--an area that Canadians say is one of their highest priorities? Well, according to Martin’s statements at a major social policy conference last year hosted by the Caledon Institute, it is an extremely modest agenda. According to those in attendance, the future prime minister has three policy areas he wants to act on: people with disabilities, Aboriginal issues, and community economic development. Now, all of these are very important, particularly the first two where Canada has a poor and terrible record, respectively. But when pressed on other larger issues, Martin said, “You know, I can only do so much even if I have a couple of terms, and I want to pick a small number of issues that I can really have an impact on.”

So that’s it. In eight years we can expect Paul Martin to deal with these three social policy issues. That means that restoring Medicare, bringing the funding of universities back to 1995 levels, and reinstituting the principle of universality to these and other programs (eliminated in 1996) are simply not on his agenda.

Ekos, the polling firm that does the most extensive values polling in the country, asked a large sample of Canadians what overall goal they would pick for Canada to achieve, if they were Prime Minister. The majority picked a better quality of life, improved health care and education systems, and the elimination of child poverty--values that are all the reverse of thise reflected in Martin’s budgets during the nine years he was minister of finance.

Our future prime minister deliberately set out in his 1995 budget to reduce the role of the federal government in shaping the nation. Our health care system deteriorated, child poverty increased by 60%, tuition fees more than doubled. His priorities were spending cuts, reduced taxes, debt reduction, and boosting productivity by driving down wages.

Nothing Martin said in his leadership campaign suggests that he has changed his values or his priorities. Before jumping on his bandwagon, Canadians would be well-advised to think about where it would take us.


(Murray Dobbin is a CCPA research associate and a member of the CCPA’s board of directors. He’s the author of several best-selling books, including his latest, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?)