A Liberal Interpretation Of Government From A Man Who Should Know Better
Upon the unveiling of his prime ministerial portrait on Parliament Hill, former PM Paul Martin was asked for a few well-chosen words about the role of government in our lives. After all, Martin was the courageous finance minister who got government debt off the backs of Canadians in the 1990s with an austerity program that helped Canada weather the financial turmoil of the next decade— a meltdown that almost bankrupted the United States.
But while the painting hanging over his shoulder looked like Martin, the person talking is now a changed man. In passionate terms he extolled the beneficence of the expanding modern state apparatus. "It is possible to do more good in five minutes here [in Parliament] than it is anywhere in five months," he said. (Since when do government do anything in five minutes?)
For people wondering the appeal of the Trudeau Liberal majorities from the 1960s to the 90s, Martin’s gauzy tribute succinctly summed up their missionary zeal. Government— which creates nothing, picks winners and losers and siphons off half the incomes of many taxpayers— is a wiser steward of the public purse than anyone else.
Here in Ottawa, an emotional Martin thundered, is where the fairy dust resides. The magic that propels our society. You folks who create wealth and jobs and prosperity are mooks compared to the savants of Canada’s Parliament. From a man who was president of Canada Steamship Lines, this line of thought is stunning, an admission that Mr. Martin (whose own father was a cabinet minister in Trudeau Sr.'s days) went native when he got to the stone halls of federal government.
As anyone with his knowledge of finance should understand, the wealth of the nation isn’t derived from redistributing vast sums to the latest policy brainwave urged on the Libs by the NDP’s Leap prophets. Climate change, unregulated immigration, minimum-wage boosts, native affairs. Take your pick. All enter the wood chipper of a greater society and exit in a spray of debt and regret.
Hyped by the Naomi Kleins, these grand schemes are regurgitated by a media with the economic savvy of a Birkenhead fish monger. As P.J. O’Rourke famously observed, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
As Mr. Martin knows (but CBC still seems fuzzy about) Canada was created by the success of its business class, not the ministries of Heavy Breathing and Warm Feelings in Ottawa. Yes, socialized medicine is popular, but who pays for it? Government makes bupkes. Adam Smith would gladly remind Martin that the Invisible Hand of the free market, not the Ostentatious Handout of the welfare state, produced the wealth and prosperity that allows today’s Liberals their leisurely pondering of re-ordering society to their tender sensibilities.
(Because Sweden is always used as an example of social welfare success, it needs to be pointed out that Sweden’s socialist dream state was collapsing late in the 20th century when leaders there finally conceded they needed a vibrant, independent private sector to fund their generous social spending. Only by freeing the private sector’s hands did they revive their economy.)
Canadians of a conservative bent would have thought that, of anyone in Canada, Mr. Martin would be hip to the disasters of borrowed money and frantic social planning produced by the first Trudeau years. Apparently not. In his speech Martin illustrated his affinity for the “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” strategies of Trudeau Jr.’s government. It’s now claimed by Trudeau’s photogenic scion Justin that Martin is down with his government’s plans to reignite the economy through eruptions of public projects fuelled by borrowing vast sums.
Martin’s honeyed words about the pure function of government get even richer when one remembers that it was during Martin’s brief three-year reign as successor to Jean Chretien that the depravity of the Liberal Party’s sponsorship scandal was finally revealed (in part) to the public. Bags of cash, payoffs, Mafia influence and the utter failure of pet projects to rise above rank partisan bribery were but a few of the takeaways from a party that enriched itself, cheated the tax payer and lied like hell about it.
To use Mr. Martin's estimate, it probably didn't take more than five minutes to get the graft flowing.
Martin is one of my few government heroes. He got there by reining in the very impulses that are so squishy today in Ottawa. But comments about the sacred purpose of sending out welfare cheques and putting coal miners out of business seem to indicate that that Paul Martin has flown the coop. Maybe seeing his portrait painted gave him license for whimsy. Perhaps the fumes of the oils left him tipsy. Either way, any resemblance between the man who slew the debt and the guy who wants government to keep moving the chess pieces on the big board is strictly coincidental.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).