Pearson was a leader
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 March 2005)

It was inevitable that Canada would decide not to participate in the missile-defence program that the Americans are developing. To do so we would have needed a prime minister with nerve, imagination, a strong sense of self and great powers of persuasion. Paul Martin has shown none of these qualities during his first 14 months in office.

Two years ago he clearly wanted Canada to stand beside the U.S. in continental defence. As he said in April, 2003, "I certainly don't want to see Canada isolated from any moves that the United States might take to protect the continent." He made many similar statements.

He knew Canada could not avoid being involved through the North American Air Defence (NORAD) agreement in the early-warning system that would trigger the missile-defence system. This was an obvious reality, stated by Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Frank McKenna, when he predicted that we would soon join the missile defence program. McKenna's view was sensible. How could we not join? We were already involved. But the sensible view was not the political view. McKenna proved dead wrong.

Martin's remarks in 2003 were made by an MP and former finance minister who then had every reason to believe that he would soon be governing Canada at the head of a majority government. But last June's election gave him a minority instead. That changed Martin.

Today he depends for survival on opposition MPs who have no reason to follow him automatically and a fractious Liberal caucus that he hasn't figured out how to manage. Apparently this situation has struck terror in his heart.

If he honestly believed his statements of 2003, his task was to make the case for the defence initiative and win over his colleagues and constituents. A competent prime minister could have done it, but Martin didn't even try. Instead he began to edge away from his views. Faced with vehement opposition, not only from the New Democrats and the Bloc but from within his own party, he gave up without a fight. He knew that simply by expressing his own convictions he would have endangered his government.

As it happens, there are times when leading a minority government encourages audacity. Should a prime minister set out to prove he deserves a majority, he may be emboldened to take chances that demonstrate his stature. Lester B. Pearson, in the 1960s, provided the classic case. He never did get a majority but it didn't much matter. From 1963 to 1968 he had to govern by dragging along with him members of other parties, offering them the carrots of patronage and the stick of a possible election that might leave them unemployed.

That method worked, but only because Pearson and his fellow Liberals had a program they believed in. During the turmoil of that minority era, with John Diefenbaker spewing hatred from the Conservative front bench, Pearson somehow managed to accomplish far more than most prime ministers.

When he turned over the government to Pierre Trudeau in 1968 he left behind a national medicare system applying to everyone, the Canada Pension Plan and the newly unified Armed Forces. Most remarkably, he provided Canada with the Maple Leaf flag, a now universally approved national symbol that almost everyone doubted he could create. The angry debate over the flag looked as if it would go on forever. But Pearson believed in it, never gave up on it and watched it flying over Parliament before he retired. He got his way, which turned out to be Canada's way.

He left behind, also, an honourable record in foreign affairs. Unlike Martin, he did not change his views of the U.S.-Canada defence system when he entered office. The previous Diefenbaker government had committed itself to the Bomarc missile system in collaboration with the Americans. Diefenbaker backed away from it when he realized that his party and some sections of the public didn't like it. Pearson insisted that the Diefenbaker promise be fulfilled and made that an election promise. Once in office he held the same views he had held in opposition. And he made it plain that Canada did not expect (as we do now) a free ride on defence of the continent.

Martin's approach, on the other hand, amounts to one more step in Canada's slow-motion withdrawal from the world stage. It's one more demonstration of our complacent refusal to play a role of any consequence in the events of history that will, whether we like it or not, shape our national future.

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