Martin's Minority Government Headaches

NOTHING IN LIFE, Winston Churchill said, is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result. Last week, many of the 135 Liberal candidates who won their ridings in the nasty June 28 election convened in Ottawa, and reminded one another that they, at least, had survived, and permitted themselves to feel a little giddy.

The Grit caucus greeted Paul MARTIN with chants of "10 more years." Martin promised defeated candidates, who were also in the room, that he'd provide the kind of government that will "make it a lot easier for you to win seats the next time." One MP said after the meeting that this minority government business won't be a problem: "We're sure to have the Conservatives' support for things like defence and Canada-U.S. relations, and the Bloc's support for social programs. We won't even need to bother with the NDP."

Piece of cake, really. Or ... not.

There's another school of thought which holds that Martin's headaches have already begun, with the selection of a cabinet to be unveiled on July 20, and that the challenges won't end any time soon. Cabinet-building, like almost everything else on Martin's to-do list, is tremendously complicated by his party's failure to win a majority. It was common for government insiders to complain before the last election that everything Martin's team did was heavily influenced by pre-election considerations. Well, the pre-election has been extended indefinitely: since a minority can fall at almost any time, the temptation to view every decision through a tactical lens will be hard to resist.

So Martin needs to show openness to the West, the region of the country that did least to requite his love on June 28. The Liberals have only one MP in Saskatchewan and two in Alberta; suddenly it's a good time to be a B.C. Liberal, because the province has sent two cabinet-worthy MPs, Ujjal Dosanjh and David Emerson, to Ottawa. But Atlantic Canada also wants in. "We have the second-largest caucus in the country now," one Atlantic MP said last week. "We should have more ministers." Ontario and Quebec Liberals are engaged in the same game of me-too. Regional considerations aren't the only piece of the cabinet puzzle: Martin needs to reward his loyalists; send out a belated olive branch to former ministers whose only sin was loyalty to Jean Chrétien; and bring in new blood - while protecting sensitive portfolios from the blunders even talented rookies can make.

That would be enough challenge for any PM. But for Martin, it's just a start. In September he meets with the premiers on health care. He's already promised "as long as it takes" to "fix health care for a generation." That hands the premiers a hefty incentive to drag the meetings out, hoping Martin will offer more money. And as the health-care talks gear up, another ghost from Martin's recent past will return to haunt him: the sponsorship scandal, in the form of Mr. Justice John Gomery's judicial inquiry. Gomery plans to begin eight months of public hearings in September. If he finds evidence of wrongdoing at the highest levels of the Chrétien government, the Liberal brand in general could be tarnished.

Any other headaches? Sure. How about gay marriage? Liberals actually did a pretty good job of avoiding that divisive subject during the election campaign, but here too, their luck is about to run out. The Supreme Court may finally begin hearing testimony on questions the Liberal government put to it about gay marriage in 2003 (Martin amended the questions in January, delaying the hearings).

Of course, before that can happen, Martin needs to fill two Supreme Court vacancies. He's promised more input from parliamentarians into the appointment of Supreme Court justices. It's hard to imagine Stephen Harper's Conservatives being satisfied with any process Martin proposes. The same challenges will face Martin when he finally gets around to filling Senate vacancies, including three from Alberta.

None of these ticking time bombs dooms Martin. If he is clever and patient, he will be able to defuse each of them. No one's eager to race back to the electorate just yet, so he will have some breathing room. But there will be moments ahead when Martin and his caucus will have occasion to remember the giddy bravado of their midsummer meeting and ask themselves: what were we thinking?

Maclean's July 26, 2004