The good, the bad, and now, the Prime Minister


We now know that on December 12, Jean Chrétien will finally make way for the Liberal party of Canada’s new leader, Paul Martin.

When that happens, Canada will get a new prime minister.

If, as expected, Martin appoints a new cabinet, Nunavut officials will find themselves dealing with a brand-new federal government. Same party, different government.

In a strange way, Martin will face on that day the same problem that Nunavut faced on April 1, 1999: he has nowhere to go but down.

Like Nunavut four years ago, Martin is now surfing a wave of impossibly high expectations, mostly of his own creation. He promises a different kind of government, and vows that he will forge a “new national will” – but he has yet to reveal exactly what he means, how he plans to do it and how he will pay for it.

He does an excellent job of telling people what they want to hear, promising to spend more and cut more all at the same time. His honey-coated rhetoric, combined with piles of money and the help of an expert team of seasoned political operators, helped him make all other contenders for the Liberal leadership look like pygmies.

His intelligence, energy and leadership abilities, however, are undeniable, and he carries the distinction of being Canada’s best finance minister in at least 50 years. If anyone can pull it off, he can. But sooner or later, and probably sooner, Martin will have to piss somebody off, and he’ll end up as just another tarnished political survivor.

In the meantime, what does the prospect of a Paul Martin government mean for Nunavut?

If Paul Martin, the prime minister, treats Nunavut in the same manner as Paul Martin, the finance minister, then a Paul Martin government is not good news for Nunavut.

When Martin visited Nunavut in March of 2001 to sign a three-year extension of Nunavut’s first formula financing agreement with Ottawa, the deal contained no increases in the growth-rate of Ottawa’s annual transfer to Nunavut. This was only a week after Nunavut’s finance minister, Kelvin Ng, warned in his budget speech that the government of Nunavut was beginning to exceed its financial limits.

Three years later, the government of Nunavut is indeed exceeding its financial limits, and is expected to produce an operating deficit of at least $50 million by March 31 next year. The only factor that’s kept the GN from going either into long-term debt or being forced to make unpopular program cuts is the cash they save every year in unspent salary money – because many Nunavut government jobs still sit vacant.

So Nunavut’s ability to meet the territory’s urgent social needs over the next four years or so may not improve.

On the other hand, if Paul Martin, the prime minister, turns out to be the same Paul Martin who delivered that brilliant acceptance speech to last week’s Liberal convention in Toronto, then Nunavut’s propects may turn out to be a little brighter.

In that speech, Martin portrayed himself as a defender of Canada’s health and social services network, and as a friend of the downtrodden – an old-fashioned, idealistic liberal. There were moments when Martin actually appeared to mean what he was saying.

If that turns out to be the Paul Martin who Nunavut must deal with, then Nunavut officials have something to hope for when they head to Ottawa with begging bowls in hand.

But one thing is clear. Nunavut officials who wants more from a Paul Martin government must be prepared to do their homework and provide properly researched substantiation for their demands – because Martin is not known to suffer fools gladly. JB

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