The essential truth of the Martin coronation metaphor

November 12, 2003
Call it Powerpalooza — the ruling class, the brahmin caste, the college of cardinals of Canadian government (cabinet ministers and corporate titans, backroom boys and media barons) have begun assembling in the country’s largest, wealthiest city for the 2003 Leadership and Biennial Convention of the Liberal Party of Canada. Exactly why they’ve gathered is a question open to debate. Technically, they’re here to select a new leader, but everyone knows the deed’s already been done, accomplished in the backrooms of riding associations across the country. Officially, the question that anyone but Paul Martin would be the next prime minister was closed on “Super Sunday” in September, when delegate selection meetings across the country chose Martin over Sheila Copps, the only competitor for the throne, by a margin of nine to one.

Unofficially, the race has been over for several years, as one faint hope after another (Brian “Captain Canada” Tobin, Alan “Gun Registry” Rock; John “Beeker” Manley) looked at the organizational chokehold Paul Martin Inc. had applied to the Liberal Party and decided that Martin had already pulled the sword from the stone. Copps, bless her, has insisted on staying in the race and staying on the ballot, perhaps because she’s never expected nor been expected to win. Besides, she’s built her lengthy career on just showing up and being annoying. Copps is, if you will, is the NDP of Canada’a Natural Ruling Party.

Copps is deprived of any slight chance of playing Buster Douglas to Martin’s Mike Tyson: delegates are voting as they register on ballots already marked for them with the candidate they were sent to elect, so there’s no hope that a last-minute change of heart as they stand alone in the voting booth might send the leadership to Copps. The only question now is the margin of victory — whether Martin can exceed the 77 per cent support Nobel-prize winner Lester B. Pearson won on the first ballot in trouncing Martin’s dad at the leadeship convention of 1958. Even that’s not really a question. For Martin to get less than 90 per cent would require that 20-odd per cent of his supporters not show up. Judging by how difficult they are to find in the crowd, it seems it’s Copps’ supporters who are staying home.

So why have the nation’s mandarins flown in from across the continent to witness inevitability slouching toward completion? I’m here to chew over that question, and to take the pulse and measure the heart of the beast — the Liberal Party — that has governed Canada for 30 of the past 40 years (and for 67 of the last 107) and will continue to govern into the future, onward to the horizon.

The lobby of the Metro Convention Centre is awash in red by 11am, campaign posters bearing the smiling face of Paul Martin dotted among the many campaign posters for people you’ve never heard of (Mike Eizenga, Akaash Maharaj, someone named Alvah) who are running for positions on the party executive. Already the floor and every other available surface is littered with paper — campaign flyers, invitations to various hospitality parties, the contents of delegate kits, policy papers, copies of The Paul Martin Times (a mini-broadsheet propaganda newspaper published daily in English and French throughout the convention) and The Liberal Times (the fall 2003 issue).

The delegates are arriving and registering in orderly fashion, and I get my first glimpse of Canada’s royal court: they’re a fairly universally suit-wearing, wealthy-looking, clean-scrubbed bunch (and mostly male, and mostly white). Most are festooned with buttons supporting Paul Martin and Eiznega or Akaash in red and white. Those who don’t wear red ties have red scarves tossed around their necks.

It takes just moments to appreciate the widely observed arrogance of Canada’s Party of Government. Every step of nearly every member’s bounding gait reeks of the confidence I recognize from the legal profession; every wide, bright grin hints of smugness; every laugh is the pronounced “HA HA HA” of a entitlement — the way Fraser Crane laughs.

The uniformity in the appearance and bearing of the assembled delegates is startlingly troubling. It’s as if every member of the Liberal Party shops at the same stores and is groomed by the same salon (the Liberal haircut is short on the back and on the sides and parted either slightly to one side of the middle or neatly across the brow for men and a short bob for women — both sexes appear to have just had their hair cut and styled the morning before arriving). Everyone kind of resembles Miles, the producer from Murphy Brown. The young Liberals are dressed and groomed just like their parents, though they appear less comfortable in the blazers and ties, as if they’ve been dressed by Mom for picture day.

After taking a few notes, I and staff writer/photographer Joel McConvey make our way past the Paul Martin propaganda table to the media registration room, where a line snaking back and forth has formed.

Later, newspapers will report that some media-types spent up to two hours in line, but it’s moving fairly snappily when I get there — I’m approaching the front after about 20 minutes. I’m craning around for journalists I recognize, though for the most part every other person in line seems to be part of the CTV camera crew.

There is Mike Duffy, who’s just ahead of us in line, wearing a bright, round, red Paul Martin button on his tie. I eavesdrop to see how the big boys network at these big-boy events: seems Duffy has a fancy new phone and is comparing technological toy notes with a guy behind us. You can spot the TV broadcast people because they look plastic and overdressed (even in this generally overdressed crowd) — Mike Duffy is not as large as he appears on TV, but the gently rolling expanse of his bald head is a rich, umbre-hued grey that seems, through the layers of pancake, to be several inches thick — like porridge. It appears you could write your name in it with a finger.

When we arrive at the front, we’re given yellow ID necklaces bearing black and white pictures of ourselves and cheap gym bags full of propaganda and Tim Hortons coffee (!!!).

Quite aside from the odd feeling of being surrounded by so many people who seem to have been churned out of a duplicating machine, there’s something that feels wrong about a leadership convention deprived of any question of who will be leader. With a few obvious non-convention exceptions (referenda over conscription and Quebec separatism, a few close general elections, one very, very not-close general election, Réné Levesque’s “night of the long knives”), leadership conventions are the key moments of high political drama in Canadian history. Careers of once and future cabinet ministers are made or broken by the speeches they make and the candidates they support, alliances are formed and betrayed between strange bedfellows, knives come out and are twisted into the backs of yesterday’s heroes. It’s at leadership conventions that the blueprint for history is drafted.

You don’t graduate from political-junkie school without learning about the great dramas of political conventions past: how Trudeau, the cool, intellectual oddity, swept to power on the fourth ballot in a nine-candidate field after Paul Martin Sr., yesterday’s man and representing the party establishment, gave up on his third campaign and entrusted the hopes of the party to a new generation; how Brian Mulroney outfoxed Joe Clark, coaching him through a leadership review in 1983, all the while plotting the coup that would unseat him at the convention months later; about another unknown, Robert Stansfield, emerging from the pack in 1967 to take over from the ousted-at-a-convention Diefenbaker; about Mackenzie King’s annointing of Louis St. Laurent as his successor by having several straw-man cabinet candidates run and then withdraw and throw their support to St. Laurent at the convention.

It’s a history alive today in other parties. Witness the significance of the Canadian Alliance turning its back on its principled founding father, Preston Manning, in favour of the percieved electability of Stockwell Day. The shock and bad blood that arose when party-outsider Jack Layton defeated loyalist Bill Blaikie on the first ballot at 2003 NDP convention. Or the already-broken pact to never, ever consider uniting with the Alliance that gave Peter McKay the helm of the Progressive Conservative party this year.

This is the stuff that steers Canadian history, the course of parliament foretold on the convention floor.

The big question of this convention — indeed the only question — as the front page of tommorow’s Globe will put it, is whether Jean Chrétien will join the new leader on stage at the Air Canada Centre for the coronation. Martin is unsure but hopeful. Chrétien is cagey. “I don’t know the program for that,” he told the Globe.

Some drama. It’s hard to imagine a time when we’ll regale the kids with the stories of how Chrétien was or was not maneuvered into offering Martin his public congratulations. “Please grandpa,” the kids will say, “please tell us instead about how far you had to walk to school…”

For the Liberal Party in particular, there’s another tradition being tampered with here. For two generations, the campaign of the next leader has risen from the wreckage of his defeat at the last convention. John Turner was leader-in-waiting and the lightning rod for internal party dissent from the moment of his defeat to Trudeau in 1968, Chrétien’s leadership was assumed from the moment he was announced the loser (“But first in our hearts”) in 1984, Paul Martin’s own course of succession was charted when his supporters wore black armbands on the convention floor during Chrétien’s victory speech. Unless Sheila Copps morphs into some kind of political superwoman from the back benches of the Martin administration (or Tobin from Newfoundland, or Manley from his probable spot as ambassador to the US), this tradition will end. Paul Martin is 65 years old — only four years younger than Chrétien (and, for all the newness and youth blather, only two men in the past hundred years have been older than him when they became PM). Whither the future of the Liberal party?

The welcoming party of the Young Liberals being held at the Steamwhistle Brewery seems an obvious place to begin the search.

It’s pouring rain something fierce, and it’s a torturous run across a muddy field to the brewery from the parking garage entrance where taxis are letting people off. Still, the attendance is good, the lure of $3 drinks and a private audience with the Leader and the promise of young romance (which seems like one of the actual reasons so many of the younger delegates are here) pull them in. It’s like a college mixer in Steamwhistle’s cavernous space, complete with a lineup inside the front door to get a wristband proving you’re old enough to drink.

In the smaller outside room with the big bar, a duo with guitars is playing Radiohead and Pearl Jam covers, while inside the larger room, where the ratio of TV cameras to youth delegates is rather closer to 1:1 than one might like (and the ratio of adults to youth in general appears to be about 3:1), FM 103 is playing some of the most mediocre dance music you can imagine.

I encounter a lawyer in his late forties from Calgary (who flashes me his I-can-get-a-drink wristband), explaining to a diplomat from Switzerland that Liberal Party members can vote for leader when they are 14, even though the general election voting age is 18. “You can’t start early enough with the brainwashing,” the diplomat says, hiding his name badge when he sees me trying to write it down.

There’s a TV camera every few feet and the Liberal kids are in high demand. In front of me a TV crew is interviewing a tall, blonde, good-looking young man who may be the captain of his football team or president of his fraternity. Off to one side is a dejected looking short kid in a black trenchcoat with spiky black hair and glasses. He looks like he’s been shaving for maybe a year. Not quite ready for TV, I guess, which makes him perfect for me.

He says his name is Matthew McCabe and he’s flown all the way in from Courtenay, BC to be a delegate for Paul Martin. When I ask him why, he’s silent for a full 10 seconds.

“Um,” he says.

I mean what, I say, do you like about Paul Martin?

“I can’t find anything that sticks out,” he says. “I just like him in general?”

Moments later a plastic-looking woman with orange-tinted hair grabs McCabe and is interviewing him on camera.

In the beer line I meet a young man and a young woman who are aboriginal delegates from BC for Paul Martin. What leadership qualities, what forward-looking policies have caused these two leaders of the first-nations youth to fly half a continent to ensure Paul Martin is elected?

“It was a free trip,” the guy says.

“The band paid for it,” she adds.

I’m standing next to the stage when Paul Martin comes in and slowly makes his way through the room toward the stage — my first chance to glimpse the Crown Prince in person. Well, sort of. What I actually see is the backs of a few dozen television camera men and their accompanying sound guys lurching toward us , then another line of them on the side and to the rear. Everywhere Paul Martin goes all week he’s surrounded by an entirely sealed bubble of (mostly electronic) media people.

They slowly open up and spread out so that he takes the stage. From where I’m standing, Paul Martin is making a speech directly to the hot lights and lenses of a wall of TV cameras. The assembled party members and youth are shunted to the back — I have no idea whether they can see the leader-in-waiting from where they are.

Most of his speech is inaudible over the crappy sound system, but I make out — as does the crowd — that Martin says “One thing is clear: the young liberals run the liberal party.”

A chant rises up, “We have power! We have power! We have power!” then subsides.

“So let’s party!” the leader shouts, and as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” begins to play, Martin wanders back into the bubble of TV cameras that then moves back into the crowd of delegates. I wonder about the significance of the future leader of Canada shaking hands with his 17-year-old supporters while “I am getting too hot, I wanna take my clothes off,” blares.

I finally find someone willing to be specific about why they think Martin is the best leader for the party, and for the country. Ari is a 21-year-old from Calgary. He’s a Young Liberal, one of those, according to Martin, who run the Liberal Party (or, as I suspect he meant, the Liberal partaaay).

“I like Paul because he’s a really nationalistic leader, he really is patriotic,” Ari says. I don’t mention the well-known fact that Martin flew foreign flags on his steamships to avoid paying Canadian taxes and instead ask if Sheila Copps and Brian Tobin and John Manley don’t also love Canada. “Well, Martin is a friend of business,” he says. People are still pouring in as I stumble out into the pouring rain.

After one entire day, I have still yet to meet a delegate for Sheila Copps.

Thursday, November 13
“… the motion carries. OK, article 3.03 — that’s page 51 of the English version and at the end that says housekeeping changes and some reorganization to clarify the meaning. Assuming there’s no debate on article 3.03…”

The moderator at the podium pauses to see if there is any debate. “All those in favour?” A show of hands. “And all those opposed.” A show of no hands.

The convention isn’t just all about the leadership race, of course, and after descending an escalator past a 10-foot-tall portrait of Martin, I arrive at room 105 in the basement of the convention centre, where I experience for a half an hour the type of boredom I always assumed would be reserved for one of the circles of hell: the Biennial meeting of the National Women’s Liberal Commission. One after another, policy resolutions and amendments to the constitution of the Women’s Commission are read aloud. One after another requests are put forward for those who want to debate the issue (there’s no debate on anything). One after another the motions pass with a half-hearted show of hands. In other rooms similar meetings are taking place among the Seniors’ Commission, the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission and the Young Liberals of Canada.

The women in this room, I begin to think as I fail miserably at trying to focus on the proceedings, are representative of the true heroes of our democracy — the boring policy wonks who take the time to get involved, no matter how boring or minutely detailed the process. These are the people, almost surely (and there are those like them in the other parties too), who manage phone banks and go door-to-door to pull the vote. They play roughly the same role as the women’s auxilliary in any church parish, or of the Safety Commission in your workplace. It’s thankless, mind-numbing work. These heroic women…

There’s the faint, barely audible hum of conversation spilling in from hallway. “Excuse me, if I can interrupt for just a moment,” the woman at the front says. “There’s a lot of background noise and I wonder if we could just keep it down as we carry on please, s’il vous plait. OK. Now we’re going on to article 3.07 …”

…are not heroes at all. They’re self-righteous librarians drunk on the power of process and convinced of the virtue of martyrdom.

Worse yet, I begin to realize through the haze of boredom that one of the problems with having a women’s commission, with having them sequestered to their own little commission while the big boys take care of the heavy lifting, is that they tend to Oprah-ize everything; that is, they behave as though the way to get women into the party is not to encourage more women to join the party and run, but to soft-and-fuzzy everything for the sake of making it easier.

For example, a resolution passed today calls for the government to spend more money for the training of trainers (!?!) to train women who want to be entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur is someone who takes a huge risk on their own initiative in the hopes of reaping a big gain. But in the eyes of the Liberal Women’s Commission, the way to encourage women to become entrepreneurial is to take all the entrepreneurness out of the job. Reduce the risks and obstacles through training and government support. I don’t tend to associate with entrepreneurs very often, but more government interference isn’t usually what I hear them crying out for when I do.

Thinking I’ve heard just about all I need to hear, I’m preparing to check out one of the other boring policy meetings when I spot a Tony-Soprano lookalike in a black suit talking into his sleeve. Further inspection shows he’s wearing an earpiece, and several other black-clad figures around him are also wearing earpieces and talking into their sleeves. I’m not an Ottawa beat reporter, and sneering mustachioed photographers have been elbowing me out of the way as if I were nobody for two days, but I’m not so stupid that I can’t recognize the RCMP prepping a room. So I camp out next to the stage and wait for Paul or Jean (I assume it will be Paul or Jean).

There’s a brief announcement that this was the time that Sheila Copps was to address the women at the convention but, “she’s doing her riding’s business in Jamaica.”

This isn’t a joke, exactly. Copps is in Jamaica promoting Hamilton’s bid for the Commonwealth Games (she’ll lose that one too — we’ll find out tonight that the games will be awarded to New Delhi). But Copps’ absence here is pronounced. It seems like an odd thing to insist on running till the end on principle and then leave the country the week of the convention. Yup, that’s exactly what we expect from a leadership candidate who’s fighting to the bitter end.

It’s already being reported that, while Paul Martin’s campaign office is a hub of activity, doing brisk business in scarves and buttons and posters (and of course their own daily newspaper), visitors to Copps’ office are usually greeted by a lone volunteer reading the paper. Copps’ campaign manager is telling reporters that, out of respect for the delegates, Sheila “won’t be doing the rounds.”

I still haven’t found a Copps supporter.

In lieu of the absent Copps, and while we’re waiting — we finally learn — for Paul Martin to address the women, we hear a speech from MP Karen Redman, who hectors the women in the crowd to run for office. “Phone up your senator and ask for a cup of wisdom,” she says, sounding very Oprah. She tells them not to be overwhelmed by the daunting tasks of setting up a constituency office and doing all that tough-tough policy reading. “It’s not easy, but if we can do it, you can do it.”

Finally Paul Martin’s arrival is announced. There’s a standing ovation and then the typical Martin procession: a wall of TV cameramen and photographers (all elbows and bright lights) backing through a crowd, then a little square of RCMP officers with arms locked in a circle around Martin, which circle he sticks his hands and occassionally his head out of to greet well-wishers on his way to the stage.

After making a speech in which he makes a somewhat patronizing but well-received joke about always attending women’s caucus meetings when he’s invited because his chief of staff is a woman and he’ll catch hell if he doesn’t (calling to mind the image of her standing there in an apron waving a rolling pin because he’s been out drinking with the finance committee), he makes a commitment without specifics to the idea that 52 per cent of MPs should be women.

I get a better chance to observe Martin’s oratory here than I did at the meeting last night, and he’s less impressive than one might expect. This leader, who comes so well-advertised, tends to stutter and to revert to managerial bureaucratese. There’s no poetry or even real verbal strength in his speech and worse yet, he doesn’t say much of anything.

While he’s speaking, an RCMP officer in a black suit checks my press credentials menacingly. Apparently I’m standing along the exit path. When Martin gets ready to leave, I’m told, I’m to go stand near the screen next to the door and not get in the way.

Martin takes questions from the floor on child poverty and early childhood education and daycare. It’s in listening to him answer these questions that I devise the Martin-o-matic: if you have a question of the future prime minister, be it on economics or the environment or media concentration, his answer will have four parts: 1) a thanks for the question and, if he recognizes you (as he does an enourmous number of his inquisitors at the convention) an acknowledgement for the crowd of your name; 2) a brief factoid illustrating that he’s conversant with the topic; 3) “Absolutely. [Insert your issue here] is very important. In fact, it’s a core part of the Liberal tradition”; 4) “That’s why we’re going to take a long hard look at [your issue] as soon as we get into office.” That’s it. No need to travel to Ottawa or the convention to ask your question in person. His answer to all questions is the same, devoid of content but sincerely concerned.

This should be troubling, this complete lack of clear ideas from the man who will be our first among equals. Martin has been clear about his desire to reform the process — to give regular MPs a larger role in parliament, to consult ordinary Candians, to repair relations between the federal government and the provinces, to create a “new deal for cities.” Accountability and openess and consultation across the board. Fair enough. But that’s all administrative.

On the policy and leadership questions — what money should or shouldn’t be spent on, what types of specific programs would, for instance, round out his commitment to eliminating child poverty — on these questions he’s silent.

If he’s playing it safe now, when will he ever stick his neck out and lead? This is something Chrétien is widely held to believe about Martin: that he lacks the courage to stand up to Quebec separatists or fight in the corners of Canadian politics and stop managing and actually do something. If he’s still mushy in articulating his vision now, you have to begin to suspect that he doesn’t have one.

As Martin leaves the stage and heads my way, I do as the RCMP told me and stand against the screen beside the exit (I’m a little scared of these people who talk into their arms). He brushes past me, surrounded by his usual gang of backward-walking cameramen, RCMP officers and trail of print reporters. In a moment I wonder why the hell these other press people aren’t lined up against the screen and run to catch up. I approach just as he’s stopped to shake hands with former Prime Minister John Turner.

“This is one of the greatest-ever Liberals!” Martin shouts about the man who was prime minister for 79 days. Turner must be considered one of the most unsuccessful Liberal leaders in history, the only one in the last 107 years to never win an election (and one of only three Liberal leaders in history to hold that distinction). Martin must have different standards of greatness than the rest of us.

The similarity in their appearance is striking; they could be brothers, with their white hair and blue eyes and proud foreheads. This familial bond may stretch beyond appearance. When John Turner was not-so-patiently waiting for Trudeau to step down so that he could assume the nation’s highest office, he was often called “The next Paul Martin,” in reference to Martin Sr.’s three unsuccessful runs at the leadership, after which the man everyone assumed would one day be leader became yesterday’s man. Then, in the mid-’90s, while Martin was growing impatient with Chrétien’s repeatedly delayed retirement timeline, the press began worrying that Martin Jr. might become the “next John Turner.”

Perhaps this trumpeting of Turner’s greatness by Martin is merely the sympathy of those made to wait too long for their turn. Such sympathy is Martin’s birthright and his experience.

Which raises the interesting, if unlikely, idea that maybe, with the conservatives uniting and the NDP gaining steam (Jack Layton has reported a huge increase in memberships since John Manley dropped out of the Liberal leadership race — the left of the Liberal party is, at least in part, fleeing Martin’s leadership), maybe the apparently visionless Martin will yet become the next John Turner. It’s far-fetched, of course, but not outside the realm of possibility.

And as I’m swept along into the smug atmosphere of Martin’s once again content-free address to the Young Liberals (who are much more lively than the Women’s Commisssion, but recieve the Martin-o-matic just the same), the idea of Martin’s being a crashing failure as party leader after his long-foretold and virtually unopposed ascension to the leadership tickels me a bit.

Outgoing Liberal Party president Stephen LeDrew is an odd man; he wears bow ties and big, round glasses, and shaves his head while combing his bushy eyebrows forward so that they cast shadows on his face. He’s been a firmly pro-Martin president for the past six years, threatening leadership reviews at every turn, and he’s proud to have “kept the party for the party;” that is, to ignore the Liberal elected officials’ opinions on how the party should be run internally.

In welcoming the roughly 10,000 people amassed at the Air Canada Centre for Chrétien’s farewell tribute, he acknowledges that this convention is missing some of the excitement associated with leadership races. “That’s already been decided,” he says. “The new leader will be Paul Martin. But Liberals love to get together to talk about Liberalism and the renewal of the party.”

Continuing a sort of theme throughout this convention, there’s a delay. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has been delayed and so LeDrew and the two convention co-chairs stall a bit (and not particularly well) as the crowd shuffles and talks amongst themselves.

The floor of the ACC is not set up in the way you’d expect the “convention floor” to be. In place of the open space where politicos are expected to scrum and run around striking bargains, they’ve placed 500 chairs, assigned seating for various well-wishers and dignitaries. Martin is seated about three rows up in the platinums, and throughout the night an entire bank of cameras will remain trained on him, gauging his every reaction to the tribute to Chrétien.

Chrétien, when he arrives, remains unmolested by the respectful crowd as he sits in a platinum seat directly opposite Martin. At every event where the two are present, Chrétien sits stage left, Martin stage right. One wonders at the signifigance.

The symbolic separation and opposition aside, the personal antagonism between the two men is not imagined by the media. They haven’t spoken personally in six years, and Chrétien has occassionally publicly complained about Martin during that time. Martin has tried to remain ever-faithful (the Party Man) in public through those years, while backstage his team has done everything possible to force Chrétien into retirement.

For nearly 10 years, Martin’s supporters have been slowly taking over the party, one riding association and provincial executive at a time. He’s raised a record amount of funds for his leadership campaign ($12 million; more than national parties usually spend on general elections), and for at least five years he and his people became visibly annoyed that Chrétien wouldn’t just step aside and let him assume his rightful place at the helm. A year ago, Martin’s court forced Chrétien to announce his retirement, threatening to campaign against him at a leadership review if he didn’t.

The departing PM has been having a little fun with this in the press at the convention, telling reporters that he’s providing all the drama and if it weren’t for him they’d have nothing to report on. Yesterday, he admitted to CBC Radio that he would have retired after two terms if Martin’s people hadn’t been trying to force him out.

“My plan was to leave at the end of two terms … but some people were pushing and there were activities,” he said. “You don’t push Chrétien around.”

In a way it’s classic Chrétien — the Little Guy from Shawinigan who wasn’t afraid to be seen as a street fighter. I’m reminded of his famous throttling of a protester who got in his way and his famous unapologetic response to the incident (“I had to go, so if you are in my way, I am walking. Something happened to somebody who should not have been there”) — this, the press thought, would kill him. There were calls for his resignation. But the general public loved that the man in charge wasn’t afraid to mix it up a bit. That’s what Chrétien’s doing with Martin here, providing a little Shawinigan handshake to the coronation on his way out.

Finally Dalton McGuinty takes the stage, and makes a few cute jokes (if he were to retire in 2030, he says, the headlines would read “Alliance-Tory merger: almost there,” and “Chrétien considering comeback”) and provides adequate tribute to both Martin and Chrétien, the latter of whom he calls the “best campaigner in Canadian history.”

I’ve braced myself for a long night of tribute speeches, but they don’t come. The night is MCed by Justin Trudeau (who invokes his father’s memory early and often — a proven method of generating applause with the Liberal crowd) and Olympic medalist Charmaine Crooks.

In lieu of the speeches that should be and usually are the currency of this kind of event, we’ve got musical entertainment: the Regent Park Children’s Choir singing “O Canada” (accompanied by a video montage that ends, appropriately, with an image of two rams butting heads); a performance by an amazing 12-year-old violinist; a few songs from jazz pianist Oliver Jones and a few more by Oscar Peterson; a really creepy thing by a Cirque de Soleil performer who looks, trapped in a baloon, like a creature from Alien; a charming rendition of My Way by Paul Anka (“we bid adieu our grand fromage now…”), who makes the ACC into a Vegas lounge.

Throughout the evening’s odd but pleasant entertainment, a long line of cabinet ministers (especially John Manley and Pierre Pettigrew — who, by the way, are layered in pancake just like the the broadcast news people) are paraded into the hallways to comment on the proceedings for the television news crews. Paul Martin’s long line of kow-towing courtiers doesn’t stop. Chrétien and his wife Aline seem to be enjoying themselves.

Finally the room goes dark and there’s a video tribute assembled by CTV and CBC to Chrétien that begins to provide some substance to this mostly stylish tribute. We see Chrétien as a unilingual francophone freshly elected to parliament, the famous photo of the four prime ministers (Pearson, Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien — Martin will be the first Liberal leader in 40 years not in the photo) taken in 1965; Chrétien as Indian Affairs Minister visiting the north; Chrétien leading the Canada forces as point man in the referendum campaign of 1980; acting as point man again (now as justice minister — Chrétien’s held more cabinet posts than any politician in Canadian history) in patriating the constitution in 1982; campaigning for the leadership in 1984 and 1990; acting as prime minister in balancing the budget, saying no to the US on war in Iraq, etc., etc., etc.

The one part of this video that will make the news tomorrow is that the finance minister who appears at Chrétien’s side is Manley, not Martin. But what strikes me is just how much of Canadian history this man has been not onlythere for, but a player in. He was in parliament when Canada got its own flag, in cabinet throughout Trudeau’s reign, he built his career as the most passionate (not the most articulate, that was Trudeau) voice for federalism in Quebec. His signature is on our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Like him or not, we’re seeing the tail end of a key era in Canadian politics pass.

The other notable thing — also related to passion — is the sheer force of his rhetoric before he became prime minister. Famously, he’s always been inarticulate, yet no one ever doubts what he means; he makes his point. And the way he makes it, the guttural force of his staccato sentences when he raises his voice to conclude his speeches, when he says “… and I know that Cananda! without Quebec! is no more Canada! And Quebec! without Canada! is no more Quebec!” — the sheer force of delivery behind that relatively benign sentiment makes you feel that Chrétien’s whole soul, and yours, is the subject under debate.

It’s fair to say we won’t soon see another orator as simultaneously inartulate and effective as Chrétien.

Then Chrétien takes the stage, a tiny figure against a huge Canadian-flag backdrop, and the contrast between the young gunslinger and the retiring leader is clear.

In tribute to himself, Chrétien’s voice is calm, sedate even, like a wise old uncle regaling us with one more story about the old days.

After listing off his accomplishments — not just balancing the books, warding off separatism and standing up to the US on Iraq, but transforming the country, he says, from an atmosphere of utter hopelessness to the anything-is-possible (except a Copps victory tomorrow, he doesn’t say) vista of today — he brings a simple message. “Trust Canadians. They are wise. They are generous. They care.”

It’s a good speech, a good-bye and nothing particularly substantial, but good. But really, all this crowd seems to be waiting for (and what the newscasts playing while I’m on my out a few minutes later will focus on) is a reference to Paul Martin. It comes as an afterthought, a few sentences toward the end, couched in claiming some personal responsibility for Martin’s success: “My friends, I am passing on the leadership of our party to a new leader. A new prime minister. A great Liberal who has been a big part of our record. Of the Liberal record I am so proud of. Although we have accomplished much, there is still so much more to do. Paul Martin will need all of our support, the support of all of us. And I can assure Paul that he has my support.”

It’s an olive branch sheathed like a blade, but it draws the largest applause of the night. These people can’t escape their reverence for Martin even to bid farewell to the first Liberal leader since Mackenzie King to hand over the party in good shape.

Chrétien concludes by saying “Well, my friends, it’s been a hell of a ride,” and to a sustained standing ovation, he exits. And all TV cameras are trained on Martin, standing and applauding.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

NOVEMBER 14, 2003
The Metro Convention Centre is more packed than in the last couple days — as if, Chrétien properly feted, the preamble is over and the real business of the convention can begin. Apparently the activists of the city have gotten the message, because there’s a long parade of protests taking place across the street in the courtyard beside the CBC building. When I arrive, there’s a street hockey game being played (by people in Martin and pharmaceutical company jerseys — they’re all playing on the same team, get it) to protest a bill before the legislature governing generic drugs. Later in the day I’ll see masses from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee advocating a solution to homelessness.

Inside the convention centre, the crowd is oblivious to the protests. More than ever, people are decked out in Martin gear (some wearing buttons that say “PM: Now I’m convinced”) and red scarves. I begin to see the odd Sheila button in the crowd.

That’s because the Other Candidate is scheduled to address the convention today. Her chance comes at 11:30am in Room 106 in the basement.

The obscure placement (the Liberal Youth held their meeting here yesterday) and non-prime timing of her speech strikes me as a bit of an insult. But approaching Room 106, it’s obvious that, perhaps for the first time in her career, people have underestimated Copps. Well before she’s scheduled to speak, Room 106 is full. People are standing in the aisles and sitting on the floor and crowds are forming around the doors out in the hallway. It isn’t that the crowd is displaying any outright adoration of Copps (there’s none of the intermittent chanting or sloganeering that have accompanied the events featuring Martin or Chrétien), but the sheer mass of people crowded into this room about the size of a high-school gymnasium to hear a speech by a no-hope, a till-now-absent also-ran is impressive.

I finally meet my first Copps delegate: Paul Battin from Stratford. He says he likes Copps because, unlike Paul Martin’s, her campaign focused on policy. “That’s the way a campaign should be run and that’s really why I’m here today … it’s the same kind of politics that Chrétien used.” He says that it was important that Copps stayed in the race. “I think it’s important that she stayed in and I think it’s unfortunate that more candidates didn’t stay in the race longer or declare their candidacies earlier. I think it’s good to see what kind of options are out there instead of just accepting a leader without having the option to choose.”

This is Copps’ prime virtue, and the reason I’m kind of liking her today after two days of being Martinized morning and night; she has been the lone bulwark of a pretense to democracy. In the same way that, in the one-party state that Canada has effectively been for the past 10 years and may yet be for some time (given the fractured right, the regional Quebec rump, and the NDP’s consistent unpopularity), there’s at least symbolic solace offered by the other parties’ continued existence, so too Copps’ candidacy provides at least the illusion of choice. No one’s ever taken her seriously (I’m sure Jack Layton can relate), but she’s stayed in until the end on principle. It’s true that she didn’t really bother to campaign for the last while (though she took a stab at firming up those all important Jamaican votes), her name is on the ballot and she’s insisted that the party has more than just the voice represented by Martin. She’s refused to stand by and sing “God Save the King,” refused to acknowledge that Paul II should inherit the throne by divine right, insisted that there should be debate. Tired of the uniformity of dress, thought and acquiescence to Martin, I’m looking forward to Copps’ — she’s famously a shit-disturbing rat packer — stirring things up a bit with her speech; like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, refusing to back away no matter how soundly he’s beaten.

Chrétien, not quite retired despite earlier indications, takes his seat to the left of the stage to tepid applause and a short, absurdly Yankifed chant of “four more years!” from some trouble-making Copps supporters towards the back of the room. This chant is cut off when the wall of cameras that precede Martin enter the room and he takes his seat to the right of the stage and begins shaking hands and kissing cheeks with the ever-present line-up of courtiers. Stephen LeDrew makes a crack about the size of the crowd, worrying that the fire marshall might come and fine them. “We’ve been fined before,” he says. “The nice thing about the Liberal Party is we have good lawyers.”

Martin is still chit-chatting while Copps is being introduced (“Shelia was never anybody’s baby,” MP Sam Bulte says, making reference to Copps’ career-making objections after Conservative MP John Crosbie told her to “Quiet down, baby” in the house. Crosbie even more famously told her to “Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lie down and love me again,” but no one’s mentioning that here).

Copps enters the room to great applause and the playing of “We are family,” (all the while, a room divider is being opened, revealing another great hall full of spectators here to see the Other One’s last stand) and gives Martin a kiss on the cheek on the way by.

And of course, her speech doesn’t stir things up. Her supporters will not be wearing black armbands on the convention floor. Sheila’s not interested in playing Cool Hand Luke, she’s here to pass the tequila to Martin and lay down and love him.

She has a grating oratorical style similar to any suburban tupperware lady (think Annette Benning pepping herself up in the mirror in American Beauty) that quickly drains whatever reservoir of goodwill I had built up for her. She pays tribute to Martin’s father and to herself (“I’m the only woman [in politics] in a position to raise a million dollars”) and makes a half-hearted plea for social justice (“We need to give a voice to the voiceless!”) and then moves on to kissing the ass of the heir apparent.

She thanks Sheila Martin for sharing her husband with the country (blech) and then concedes defeat in the strongest terms. “I want to thank those Liberals who worked their hearts out for me and now I urge you to work your hearts out for Paul.”

There’s wide applause from around the room, and I realize that this group hasn’t come to praise Copps for her principles, but to bury her. It’s like the many thousands filing past Lenin’s tomb after Stalin was installed, looking on at the social conscience and diversity that were once a part of the party. This is more eulogy than concession. Almost certainly, Copps’ career as a public figure has ended, but you should have seen the crowd that came to bid her good riddance. It must have been 3,500 people strong.

When her speech is done and she begins shaking hands, Martin quickly rises from his seat and his RCMP detail commences clearing his path toward the stage. I think he’s making a gentlemanly gesture, but he isn’t heading to the stage at all, he’s being led through a curtain behind it, into the bowels of the convention centre. Apparently they’ve determined that the crowd of rabble through the normal routes is too large for a safe exit (heaven forbid Martin should spend too long among his subjects).

Copps sticks around, revelling in the last, largest crowd she’s ever likely to be adored — or pitied, or both — by.

The monotonous Stepford-wifeyness of it all — the similarities in dress and styles of speech, the mindless obeisence to Martin — would strike me funny if I were covering an Amway convention or a religious cult. I’d still feel a certain pity and distain for the participants, sure, but the sheer meaninglessness of it all would strike me as hilarious. Here, it’s just scary. You’ll be listening to a robotic response from some delegate who looks and thinks and talks just like the others, and you’ll want to smack the guy in the head to see if you can shake some originality loose, and then you’ll suddenly realize: these people run the country. And the amount of sway they carry, the amount of power they exert on the lives of every Canadian, coupled with the apparent ideological black hole that exists here — not just the absence of any ideas or ideals, but the absence of any awareness of such an absence — that becomes scary. I always read Hunter Thompson’s political coverage and admired it for the poetic writing and the rampant drug abuse, but I always imagined that he was getting a kick out of it all. But suddenly here, the phrase fear and loathing is more than a poetic and humorous title, it’s a genuine gut feeling that I am incapable of laughing off for more than a few minutes at a time. And look folks, no drugs! These people run the country.

In fact, as far as they’re concerned, they are the country. It’s only through sitting through commission meetings for three days that I’ve understood the full measure of the extent to which Liberals view their party and the country as synonyms. When speakers talk of Canadian history, as almost all of them do, it is about Trudeau and Laurier and Pearson — there is no John A. MacDonald in the Liberal version of history, nor is there a Tommy Douglas (Paul Martin Sr., they say, is the father of Medicare). There is a Brian Mulroney, the great villain who wrecked things before Paul Martin came along as Finance Minister to save us (curious revisions are already taking place). But otherwise, the party’s history is the history of the country, and when they say “we” you can never be sure whether they mean “we Canadians” or “we Liberals,” and there’s no use puzzling over it because they almost always mean both.

To them, the Liberal Party encompasses every aspect of the country’s politics — l’état c’est nous. At the same meeting today I’ve heard the Liberal Party described as “Canada’s best vehicle for social change,” and minutes later, “the only party in Canada capable of balancing the budget and cutting taxes.” No matter what corner of the political spectrum an idea comes from, someone (and often Martin himself) will describe it as a “core Liberal principle.”

No one bats an eye at these apparent contradictions because to them there is no contradiction: there is no governing ideology save for the right and responsibility to govern. There is no Canada outside of the Liberal Party. Those who are against the party are against Canada — a non-Liberal Canadian is a contradiction in terms, dangerous at worst, pityable at best.

And now: a non-Martin leader is equally unthinkable. On with the elevation.

An hour before the coronation ceremony for Paul Martin is set to begin at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the place is already mostly full of frenzied Martinettes. The 500 seats that sat on the arena floor for yesterday’s schmaltzy farewell have been removed in favour of a mosh-pit atmosphere (indeed, the broadcaster from This hour Has 22 Minutes has even been body surfing), the 50 or so feet in front of the stage already packed shoulder-to-shoulder with Young Liberals chanting “Paul! Paul! Paul!” waving red-and-white Paul Martin signs and banging together red and white phallic Paul Martin balloons that make a tub-thumping noise that echoes around the arena so that it sounds like a fleet of helicopters is preparing to land on the convention floor.

The only really empty section is in a corner away from the stage reserved for Copps and her delegates. On every seat there is a Paul Martin sign, which I think is a cruel joke until I see her supporters waving them and thumping balloons for Martin later in the night.

By the time the Beloved Leader-to-be makes his way to his platinum seat a half-hour later, the screaming and cheering and the THWUMP-THWUMP-THWUMP of the balloons is overwhelming and feeding itself to still higher volumes and intensity. The thunderous noise reaches into its 10th sustained minute and Martin himself, grinning and stretching his arms over his head like an orangutan, grabs some balloons to join the thumping ovation for himself. For those not inside the royal court and suspicious of unruly mobs, the floor of the Air Canada Centre is a terrifying, suffocating place.

For the second night in a row, there is little speechifying and much music. Martin’s choices of entertainment seem to have been focus-group tested to contrast with Chrétien’s. Sixty-nine-year-old Chrétien had jazz and lounge and Maritime folk. Young, vigorous 65-year-old Martin has pop troubadors Ron Sexsmith and Daniel Lanois, and Audrey from Canadian Idol and later, at the after-party back at the convention centre, Sloan.

The appearance of a youthful taste in music notwithstanding, I’m forced again to return to the question of Martin’s qualifications for the job. He was a success in business (though the offshore-registration tactics he employed to avoid Canadian tax and labour laws give pause) and then he was a solid finance minister who balanced the budget. He’s good-looking in a country-club way and relatively charming, though he has neither Trudeau’s silver tongue nor Chrétien’s unvarnished straight-from-the-heart sincerity at the podium. His dad was a kind of innovator, or at least facilitator (he stole the CCF-NDP policy book for Pearson’s government) who was passed over three times and missed his chance to lead the party. And that’s about it.

In fact, Paul Martin Sr.’s memory is invoked so often in discussing the party and the Son that you get the impression perhaps Martin’s blood is more persuasive than his acheivments. Being the son of Paul, The Father of Medicare (in fact, Liberal mythology has it that Paul Jr.’s bout with polio was the inspiration for the introduction of universal health care) is inspiration enough for the party’s court. His father, steamrolled three times in his own bid for the leadership, is having his destiny fulfilled tonight through his son. He has a right to govern, a chance denied by the cruelty of history to his father, who actually earned his shot at the top job.

Throughout his 10-year campaign for the office, Martin’s failed to articulate any clear policy or to specify what he’d do differently from the man he’s so long tried to force from office. This is the War of the Roses, the pursuit of power for personal, and probably dynastic, purposes. He trumpets difference without specifying distinction. Even under direct questioning, he reverts to an amorphous formula (the Martin-o-matic) that betrays nothing of his vision or ideas.

It’s striking, as Bono takes the stage to lecture the crowd about the pressing emergency of AIDS in Africa, that his is the first real policy speech that I’ve heard in three days at the convention, full of details about Canada’s broken commitments and proposals for exactly how Canada can help. Delivered by a rock star. He never removed his shades and he leaned on the podium as if he was lounging, but Bono was a far more polished speaker than Martin or Chrétien. And nearly beloved by the crowd, drawing wild thwumping and a standing ovation while admitting he’s “not a supporter of the Liberal Party,” and promising Martin would regret inviting him, saying he’d force him to deliver on his promises, or “I’m going to be the biggest pain in his ass.”

During a quiet moment while Daniel Lanois is onstage losing the crowd, I stand on the floor about 10 feet away from Chrétien, trying to take the measure of the man in a bit of a Norman Mailer moment. Chrétien is probably staring into empty space, reflecting on the turnover of power or whatever, but where I’m standing he seems to be staring at me, into my eyes. His ragged face and intense gaze (and this in a moment of reflection) make me think he might be about to stride down to the floor and give me one of his Shawinigan handshakes. Even lost in thought, even on retiring, Chrétien has that kind of presence. I could imagine that he’d still spoil his successor’s moment of glory by not congratulating him publicly.

I wander over to the opposite side of the arena to attempt the same sizing up of Martin. Through the wall of TV cameras that have remained completely fixed on him all night, he is intent on the stage, whispering now and again to his wife. He looks like a nice guy, and he looks fully aware that he’s being watched, and he looks every bit the actor, comfortable as he is with the role. It’s impossible to imagine those baby blue eyes providing anything but compassion. There’s no way they’d inspire fear. And yet I’m a little afraid here, among the fanatical masses.

Now comes the moment Martin’s waited 10 years for. Stephen LeDrew (who will tomorrow congratulate himself in code in his farewell speech for the shafting he gave Chrétien) announces the result of the leadership vote: Martin has won with a record-destroying 94 per cent of the vote.

The entire place erupts with chants and cheers and the louder-than-ever thwumping of balloons and Martin, strangely, bolts for the back hallway with his RCMP detail, only to appear on the big-screen televisions moments later acting as MC in an infomercial about himself. The audience watches rapt and cheers at the screen and laughs at his regular-guy jokes and all I can think is, what the hell is he advertising for? The convention’s been won. Has he been promoting himself as leader for so long that he’s truly unable to do anything else?

And a kind of paranoia overtakes me as the screaming crowd welcomes the real Martin to the stage, and it’s then that I understand the inherent love this party — that encompasses everything but stands for nothing — has for a manager who promises vision but delivers a vacuum. He is a clean slate onto which his subjects project whatever they like: conservatives see him as the beacon of fiscal responsibility who balanced the budget and cut taxes, leftists see him as the heir to his father’s welfare-state legacy. All the while the Son King remains above discussing policy specifics — he believes in everything in general and nothing in particular, and that is the longest-standing Liberal principle of all. Power is its own virtue.

Later tonight he’ll articulate this more clearly when he tells the convention after-party, “You can’t imagine how great that enthusiasm looked on television … tonight we celebrate, tomorrow the next election campaign begins!” How great it looked on television.

But that’s later. Now he makes a speech full of inflated rhetoric. “It is a time when destiny is ours to hold … to summon a new national will,” he says, in the service of “the politics of achievement.” It’s obvious that Martin wants to be a leader of historic vision, yet even now he doesn’t articulate what that vision is beyond management techniques and bureaucratic reform (“the politics of achievment”? As opposed to what? The politics of sitting around doing nothing?). Now, he’s wrapping up his ascension speech by shouting, “Let us join together! In our time! And make history once again!” (“In our time”? A meaningless fragment, surely, meant to represent substance (if either somewhat historically ignorantly or, perhaps, forbodingly) — “peace in our time” — without actually delivering it. Martin is still playing at being convincing as a leader rather than actually being a leader.)

The legions of courtiers and foot soldiers rise. I can barely hear Martin through the phallic thwump. Balloons and streamers fall from the ceiling and the stage fills with people.

And then, resolving the night’s only real drama, Jean Chrétien, Martin’s nemesis, appears onstage and raises the new leader’s hand in victory — showing everyone that the party is united again behind the new man, and illustrating what might be the motto of the Liberals, the one idea that unites the multitudes contained within the party, the one thing that this whole weird convention has been about after all, shown to me by the youth of the party the other night and in a way, they — LeDrew, Chrétien, Turner, the Martin delegates, even the Copps delegates, but most pointedly, Paul Martin himself — are chanting it still, and always: We’ve got power! We’ve got power! We’ve got power!

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 20, 2003.