Monday, January 09, 2006

Martin stumbles, and a Conservative government looms

VICTORIA - Paul Martin was terrible in the leaders' debate Monday, and the question now is what that means for the last two weeks of this campaign.
I'm writing this minutes after the leaders have delivered their well-rehearsed closing statements. There is always the chance that I got it all wrong as I scribbled notes for two hours.
But Martin's performance looked sadly desperate and floundering. He appeared to be mentally searching through the key talking points his handlers had insisted he memorize, only to find them all jumbled and somehow wrong, and blurting out some barely relevant line. An actor auditioning, once again, for a role he needed terribly but probably wasn't going to get.
Partly Martin is the victim of expectations. He's been doing this job for almost 20 years, and working towards being prime minister most of that time. That creates an expectation of some skill, and perhaps a performance that could pull a faltering Liberal campaign back on track.
That didn't happen. Martin was semicoherent, off-topic, slightly crabby, offering a stream of obviously pat answers and rehearsed ad libs. There was no sense of the man, what he cared about or what he really would do in the next few years.
And he seemed desperate, among the most unattractive qualities in anyone seeking our love or affection.
Suddenly, from nowhere, Martin proposed changing the Canadian constitution. The federal government should never be able, even in extraordinary circumstances, to use the nothwithstanding clause to override the charter of rights, he said.
It's an obviously clunky effort to get same sex marriage back on the agenda. Maybe, Martin was suggesting, Harper would break his promise not to use the notwithstanding clause to ban gay marriages.
I'm an extremist on individual rights and freedoms.
But this is reckless. In Martin's new world, everything would be left to the courts and Parliament would have no recourse as judges interpreted the charter of rights.
And since Martin has not said one word about this major constitutional change before this week, it also looks terrible. The Liberals are prepared to mess around with the constitution to score a few political points.
The ploy was also ineffective. Stephen Harper brushed off the attack, saying he thought the current constitutional balance between Parliament and the courts was reasonable. He positioned himself as the man in the middle.
Harper and Jack Layton were not brilliant, but they consistently did better than Martin.
Harper's job was to avoid frightening people, and he succeeded. I'm not sure people who watched the debate ended up liking him better, but I don't think they would be scared. Harper seemed a slightly too smart policy wonk, but not terrifying. ("My strengths are not spin, or passion, and you know that," he said.)
Layton and the NDP should be much energized by the debate. He did fine, but that's not the news. Martin's collapse means a Conservative minority government is now looking very likely. Potential New Democrat supporters who were prepared to vote Liberal in order to block Harper can now return to the fold. The New Democrats had faced being caught in a squeeze between the two main parties. Now they can hope for four or five more seats in British Columbia.
We're in a complicated feedback loop now. If the Conservatives look sure to win - a good bet after the debate - will some people who just wanted to the Liberals a lesson have second thoughts? Where they will go?
But people who watched the debate saw the end of Martin's political career. It's strange in many ways. Canadians are working, the economy is strong, the government is paying down debt, yet Martin couldn't make that part of the debate.
Momentum does matter in politics. As the campaign winds down, and on election day, the party with the keenest volunteers will have an advantage.
Today, that is not much likely to be the Liberals.
Footnote: It was a long two hours for viewers looking for B.C. issues. Layton raised raw log exports, and Martin talked about the advantages of having Pacific ports. But that was it in terms of the province's special issues.


Anonymous said...

It is really amazing how different persons can see the same
event in such varied ways that the views are incompatible. I saw a vigorous Martin fully in command of fact and policy show "fire in the belly" while Harper turned in a wooden performance so balanced it had no life. If it was his to lose, he lost it for sure. Layton sounded bored and a little tired of endlessly repeating how the NDP had been constructive, and that guy from Quebec was blown right off his position when he dared to challenge Martin. I would score it Martin 5; Layton 3; Harper 2 and that guy minus 1. Yes the Notwithstanding thing may turn out to be a mistake since it further elevates the decisions of people who do not represent anyone except their company at dinner , but that is long term
and at the moment it acheived its object in showing the other three all opposed to political "reform". The conservatives have been stopped dead in their tracks and will decline after this. Because, because, because they just do not know how to deal with a knife and fork.

Anonymous said...

You know what is tiring me out about this campaign and canadians? The fact that they sit back and do nothing to support postive elements in this country and then b*tch and complain when somebody doesn't live up to their "standards". Different standards than they set for themselves i might add.

Typical Canadian approach: leaders are to be knocked down.

To blame Paul Martin for the "conservative government looming" is naive and ill informed.

Anonymous said...

why must we always not vote for someone but against some one?

And yes everyone sees things a bit differently so we do get to vote. But so many of don't but sure bitch at the results.

The BLOC leader may appear to some folks as" that guy" but he controls a heck of a lot of Quebec votes and seats. He knows that and so do the other parties. They may not like it, but that's the way it is. If Martin does poorly in Quebec, and he very well might, it will make even a slim minority a problem. If Harper gets not much of anything in Quebec the same applies. The BLOC knows what it has and what the Quebec voters want and will vote in the house accordingly.

The first writer talks about the conservatives not knowing how to handle a knife and a fork is pretty insulting. It's a tad nasty. I don't want a Conservative government either, but if the majority of voters do, well that's the way things go.