Paul Martin is one of the shortest serving prime ministers in Canadian memory. The Paul Martin administration was to many Canadians perhaps not even a fond memory as he was not even given the opportunity to serve a full term before losing the job to Stephen Harper in 2006. None the less, Martin and his administration left a lasting impact on Canada’s domestic and foreign affairs, as he was a key contributor to shaping Canada’s economy into what it is today. Paul Martin had a dream for Canada which he outlined through his policy and his speeches, a dream which he had to watch come to fruition as an MP and, later, outside of Parliament in his retirement. Although Paul Martin’s tenure may have not been as long as that of Pierre Trudeau’s, or even that of his immediate predecessor, Jean Chretien, he left a lasting legacy on Canada which will be felt through the decades. Such was the case in particular with his approach to fiscal management of the country and his dreams for a Canada that would build on the legacy of Canada as a caring nation that began with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his own father, Paul Martin, Sr., in the 1940s.
Paul Martin Jr. was born the son of distinguished Liberal Member of Parliament, Paul Martin Sr., in Windsor, Ontario. Martin Sr. would move the family to Ottawa while Martin Jr. was still young. There, he would send his children to better their French at primary school.1 The Martin family has always had close ties to their Francophone culture. In particular, there was a strong connection between the Martin family and the French Catholic church, which was typical of Franco-Ontarian households for the times. Faith was a key feature to the policy of Martin Sr. and, likewise, for the upbringing of Martin Jr. Growing up Martin Sr. was a devote Catholic, spending ample time at mass, and even growing up himself in a home rented from the local bishop.2 These close ties to Catholicism helped shaped Martin Sr. and later the policies and outlook of his son. Perhaps more important in shaping his outlook was the fact that his father contracted polio as a child and was left unable to walk for several years.3 Young Paul sometimes campaigned at his father’s side when Martin Sr. was the Minister of Health and Welfare in King’s government and a strong advocate of the welfare state. Martin attended St. Michael’s College, a Catholic college at the University of Toronto, where he also earned a law degree before pursuing a career in the private sector.4
Although Paul Martin Jr. only led the country for exceptionally short period of time, he still had a remarkable political career. Attempting to fulfil his father’s lost dream of becoming Prime Minister, losing the Liberal Leadership on three separate occasions, Martin Jr became involved with Canadian politics quite early,5 and being the son of a well-established Liberal member of parliament the thought could not have ever truly been that distant. Paul Sr.’s memoirs have been known to show that the younger Martin was already wanting to enter Canadian politics as early at the 1970’s, though he would wait until the late 80’s before he did so however.6. With a deep-rooted political legacy, it would not be surprising to expect great things from the younger Martin. And great things he did accomplish, as he was one of longest serving finance ministers Canada has seen in a long time. Originally appointed to the role by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1993, Martin would hold the position until he was fired by Chretien in 2002. As finance minister, Paul Martin Jr. tackled Canada’s huge deficit aggressively, balancing a budget which did not seem likely at the time. Although the policies and tactics he used to attain such a goal were often criticized, Martin led Canada’s economy to substantial growth while, at the same time, dealing with unprecedented circumstances, including an exploding deficit, which could be called unfavorable at the best.
Martin as Minister of Finance
Paul Martin’s vison for Canada began to take shape before he ever became Prime Minister, although his Speech from the throne formalized it. He demonstrated his political prowess as a Liberal politician in the multiple budget speeches delivered during his time as Finance Minister in the Chretien Administration. His budget speech delivered in 2001 shortly, before his dismissal showcases what kind of country wanted to build once he deficit was under control. Though criticized immediately after delivering it by a young member of the Canadian Alliance, Jason Kenny for not being written with enough autonomy and not addressing the ‘expectations’ of the people7, Martin’s budget clearly reveals, however, how he thought Canada should be moving forward. The speech was delivered at a pivotal moment in Canadian history, just two months less a day after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Paul Martin’s budget speech was of immense importance that year. Along with the newfound safety concerns both domestically and internationally, 9/11 caused major disruptions in the North American economy causing a rapid decline in Canada’s fiscal growth for the foreseeable future and Martin responded in such a way that won accolades from many.7
Martin’s speech was designed to calm Canadians during those uncertain times and that is what it did. Understandably, Canada possessed the fiscal capacity to heavily spend on social programs that year because of Martin’s previous budgets. The Chretien government did, however, make good on its promise to direct $23 billion in extra funding to healthcare and education, despite enacting a $100-billion-dollar tax cut.8 The main focus of Martin’s budget speech was to not only maintain his path of fiscal prudence, but to reassure Canadians that the government valued health care and education, placing importance on social and economic measures during the period of considerable instability. The title of the budget speech Securing Progress in an Uncertain World was chosen to reflect Martin’s vision for Canada which was creating a sense of stability during a period of crisis and great instability. This speech, however, might not have spoken as much to the notion of progress that Canadians might have desired but the federal budget of 2001 was Martin’s way of reminding Canadians that they had to try and keep Canada stable and secure.
By 2001 the budget declared that Canadas fiscal growth had stagnated quite significantly, going from 4.4% and dropping to around 1.3%, effectively ending the last few years of economic boom.8 Martin was not going to let that be the end of his success, however. While serving his long tenure as finance minister he had brought stability to Canada’s economy and he managed to control the burgeoning deficit and produce balanced budgets. In fiscal 2000-2001, according to his budget speech “The federal government recorded a budgetary surplus of $17.1 billion… This [was] the largest annual surplus since Confederation and the fourth consecutive annual surplus under Martin, following surpluses of $3.5 billion in 1997-98, $2.9 billion in 1998-99 and $12.3 billion in 1999-2000.”9 For a Finance Minister who was genuinely concerned with social programming, Martin maintained that he and Chretien planned to protect Canadians during difficult times but they had to restore fiscal responsibility before they could launch much in the way of new spending initiatives. Most of the Government’s priorities had shifted to defence and security after the attacks in New York and had clearly forced Martin off of his plan to invest in social policies, but even in the midst of a crisis, he was also able to add a personal piece about helping Aboriginal youth a policy to which he has shown a full commitment, both during his tenure as Finance Minister and Prime Minister, and especially after he left politics. In wake of the 9/11 attacks citizens were on edge, and Martin believed they were also looking to their government for answers on national security. Martin’s speech, consequently, detailed what the government would provide, as it was of the upmost importance in his agenda to keep Canadians safe. In 2001, after several surpluses the federal government promised the largest jump in defence spending ever seen in peacetime Canada.10 There was also an overhaul of Canada’s refugee systems, as the government was planning on fast tracking ‘those who don’t belong.’10
Before becoming Prime minister, and actually being able to be ‘in charge’, Paul Martin would have to transition from Liberal Minister of Finance to Liberal leader. The prospect of becoming Prime minister was never far from Martin’s mind. His father had lost several bids for Liberal leadership and the role of Prime minister,11 so when the chance for the younger Martin arrived, he wanted it desperately and, perhaps, too desperately. He had lost the race against Chretien in his initial bid for leadership in 1990, and although he was mostly a loyal minister in Chretien’s government, there was no doubt he had aspirations of stepping in the top job. His supporters worked tirelessly to build his support across Canada. Even so, Martin would never have formally resigned from his role as Minister of Finance to pursue his dream of becoming the next Prime Minister. Jean Chretien would make that decision for him, however. Despite the growing animosity between the two, Martin apparently wanted to remain apart of Chretien’s cabinet. There had been a growing divide in the party between the two, however, and the eventual consequences of this rift led to the end of Paul Martin’s service as the longest serving finance minister in the postwar period. 12 In 2002, he was replaced by Chretien and finally given the opportunity to try and become next Prime Minister of Canada.
It was perhaps a propitious development in the wake of the Sponsorship Scandal and the revelation of a level of corruption in the Liberal government and led, in part, to Chretien’s own resignation. Martin finally had a chance to fulfill his dream. He easily won the leadership of the Liberal party, being named Liberal leader in November although he would have to wait until December 2003 to assume the office of Prime Minister. Martin finally had the helm of the nation and had the chance to enact some of policies in which he believed. He was the ideal bi-cultural and bilingual leader and coupled with an impressive resume, Paul Martin was a logical choice for who would lead Canada towards a great future.9
Martin As Prime Minister
Despite the Liberal party’s transition to a more left-leaning orientation, Paul Martin would always stay somewhere close to the centre than left. This can be shown in Martin’s 2006 election platform where, some have commented, “every issue was a priority as the party tried to be all things to all people” Likewise, while defending his Throne Speech in parliament he would go on to say “[o]urs is an ambitious approach but it is as well responsible and balanced. We are moving neither right nor left but in the direction that Canadians demand; we are moving forward.” This statement highlights his mindset of doing what he believed in, which did not always line up with the viewpoints of his party. Though often criticized for his policies, he did try and reach all Canadians, but such a strategy is, unfortunately, impossible and it resulted in his administration appearing as if it did not know how to sit priorities. His Saskatchewan-born advisor, David Herle would later say “We felt that there was a tremendous desire for change in the country… (but polls show) Canadians were not fundamentally dissatisfied with our policies.”13
In 2003, Martin finally had the autonomy he sought as he became Prime Minister. Unlike his budget speeches made in the past, the Speech from the Throne gave him the opportunity to finally lay out his vison for Canada and attempt to enact the policies for which he had long advocated. Yet, he would have precious little time to achieve his objectives. Martin would not last four years as the leader of Canada. This was not entirely his fault, however. The country had seen steady and gradual economic decline over the last few years of Chretien’s administration. Further, the Liberal party was suffering gravely from the ongoing Sponsorship Scandal. To deal with the growing issues over allegation of Liberal party corruption over federal advertising in Quebec, Martin attempted to deflect criticism of himself and his government by establishing the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, known as the Gomery Commission after its chair, Justice John Gomery. The commission was to investigate his own party for evidence of corruption. This scandal became more damaging than initially anticipated and while Martin was clear from charges himself, his former boss and Prime Minister, Jean Chretien was criticized by Justice Gromery for his ‘carelessness’, if nothing else.14 The Commission reflected poorly on Martin himself and the whole Liberal party. Martin was placed in a very vulnerable predicament and he was forced to defend the Liberal record. It all placed him in an uphill battle against a young, vibrant Stephen Harper whose Conservative party focused relentlessly on charges of Liberal corruption and the misuse of public funds. Moreover, the Liberals had been in power for nearly thirteen years at this point and they were becoming a tired administration. Many Canadians were suffering from political weariness after so long under the same government.15 Martin also did not help himself in cleaning up his own public image.
For Martin, this meant that he never truly got to achieve what he wanted. His Throne speech outlined what he wanted to build in Canada, and it signaled that the state was determined to play a new role in Canadian society after several years of fiscal restraint and cuts to the civil service and federal programs. His father’s focus on healthcare became a priority which he embraced. In wake of the SARS and the avian flu epidemics, Martin sought to calm Canadians fears once again. This included a lump sum of $2 billion being directed towards healthcare, Martin also created the of the Public Health agency of Canada.16 It proved to be a key institution for Canada in battling infectious diseases arriving in the country, and directly improving the Canadian response to diseases such as Swine flu and much later COVID-19. Although he succeeded in improving Canada’s health system, he would not last in political office to see it officially come to past. This must have been bittersweet for Martin to watch.
Martin’s commitment to building better relationship with Indigenous Canadians was also shown in his Throne Speech. Mirroring the incentives of his own foundation to which he would devote considerable time and energy later, Prime Minister Martin demonstrates the importance of that relationship, building and attempting to create a more equitable society for Indigenous Canadians. Most of Martin’s policy was projected at long term development, and in particular, it was aimed at economic stability.17 Like his final budget speech, Paul Martin sought in his Throne Speech to simply improve the status quo that already existed in Canada. Martin and Chretien had managed to balance the budget after Brian Mulroney’s messy departure, and they did so through massive tax cuts, and reductions to the public sector for nearly a decade but now Martin wanted a new and different approach.20 During the Address in Reply to his motion on the Throne Speech it was clear that Martin’s legacy of cuts would not be forgotten as Grant Hill, the acting Leader of the Opposition, told Parliament “[t]he real story here is the $25 billion the Prime Minister cut as finance minister, not the $2 billion he is grudgingly giving back.”18 What is important to note, however, is that the fiscal situation that Martin inherited in 1994, and the issues faced over his early years in Parliament. Without the cuts he implemented, balancing Canada’s budget could have proven an even more difficult task. He returned Canada to the era of the balanced budget but before he could implement his plans for a new Canada that built on the legacy of previous Liberal governments of social policy innovation, he was defeated in a general election.
Paul Martin may be the Prime Minister who empathized most with Canada’s Indigenous people and he has spent much of his retirement working towards equity though a number of programs. Most notably, the Martin Family Initiative, a program dedicated to improving educational opportunities to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children, has been very active.19 Martin would say in a speech in 2009 to 16,000 students participating in We Day that “[w]e as Canadians cannot speak about our values abroad unless we show that we prepared to put those values to work here in Canada.”20 Paul Martin has never abandoned his commitment to Indigenous people and human rights although he would always remain extremely conscious of managing prudently Canada’s budget.
Though he only served for a short time compared to some of Canada’s other Prime Ministers, his fiscal record was astounding. Paul Martin not only successfully stewarded Canada as a long-serving Finance Minister, he also reported a surplus both fiscal years while he was Prime Minister. Martin reported a surplus the entire time he was in public office.21 This was of no surprise, however.22 This fiscal prudence was the cornerstone of Martin’s vision, and before his death Paul Martin Sr. would say to his son “I was the father of Canada’s social revolution; you will create the country’s economic revolution.”23 This quote must have stuck with Martin Jr. as the economy was always foremost on his mind. At times perhaps too much so. He had an obsession with decreasing the deficit which led to cuts in essential services and considerable suffering among some Canadians. Medicare in particular was struggled greatly, but due to Martin’s priority of finding fiscal security, once he had the budget back in surplus he was then keen on restoring and bolstering the social programs that had been cut.24
This is not to say that social programming was completely ignored by Martin. He understood clearly that the long-term commitment could not be possible without a sound fiscal regime. Once that system was secure Martin could turn to fulfilling his social vision for Canada. He also believed in Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Accord, as well making good on his promise to help provinces subsidize healthcare and help the fight HIV internationally, especially in Africa, even covering the costs up to a quarter of physician’s appointments.25 Despite his recent commitment to social spending, he also understood only economy growth provided the foundation for social spending.26 Martin said in his Throne Speech, “[the] (g)overnment of Canada is unalterably committed to fiscal prudence, as evidenced by annual balanced budgets and steady reduction in the debt relative to the size of the economy. This Government will not spend itself into deficit.27 Martin and his Liberal government were able to direct an extra 3.8% in annual spending.28 Paul Martin might have been to be a progressive Liberal politician, but it was his strong economic policies which focus brought him to the centre of power in Canada. He sought to make everyone in Canada happy, he was just never given the chance to do so.
Paul Martin will be remembered as one of the shortest serving Prime Ministers in Canadian history, but he was able as Finance Minister to display a level of economic prowess not seen before or since. Always aiming for the leadership of the party and of the country he loved, Martin worked to create a Canada he could be proud of, a stable Canada which could succeed in any situation. Martin’s administration worked tirelessly to keep the country fiscally steady, no matter the cost, and he believed that once the fiscal affairs were in order, he could turn to other matters as his father had done. Martin had made good on the first promise, a promise of restoring fiscal balance to the nation but, unfortunately, he did not last long enough in politics to see the second part of his dreams come to fruition. Through no real fault of his own perhaps, Paul Martin lost 2006 the election, which meant watching from the sidelines quite early as others set new policies that were largely possible because he had been a good financial steward during his tenure. His legacy lives on and Canada will always remember the skill of Paul Martin’s financial strategy, and how he tried to shape the country with the surpluses he had created. Paul Martin was just getting started, but he was gone and out of office even as an MP by 2008. Paul Martin was gone without a chance to fulfill his dreams for a great Canada.
Donaghy, Greg. 2013. “A Catholic journey: Paul Martin Sr., politics, and faith.” Accessed December 1, 2020. https://go-gale-com.libproxy.uregina.ca/ps/i.do?p=EAIM&u=ureginalib&id=GALE%7CA350062413&v=2.1&it=r.
Government of Canada. 2016. Library and Archives Canada. 04 26. Accessed December 3, 2020. bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/prime-ministers/pmportrait/pages/item.aspx?PersonId=21.
Martin, Paul. 2001. Securing Progress in an Uncertain World: The Budget in Brief 2001. Financial update, Ottawa: Department of Finance.
Wiggins, Cindy. 2004. “Paul Martins healthcare legacy.” In Hell and High Water: An Assessment of Paul Martin’s record and Implications for the Future, Todd Scarph, 99-105. National library of Canada. https://www-deslibris-ca.libproxy.uregina.ca/ID/404572.