Prime Minister Paul Martin has lately spent many hours explaining himself on television, but this weekend it was on radio that his approach to politics came through with startling clarity. Martin presents himself as an honest statesman who is appalled by the Quebec sponsorship scandal and should be given credit for taking quick action to investigate it. But in one brief interview he made his claim to virtue look highly dubious.
On Saturday morning, when he talked with Anthony Germain on The House, CBC radio's program about Parliament, he faced two tough questions and gave answers that were so evasive and so far off the point that he must have dismayed even his most loyal supporters. It was possibly the Prime Minister's slipperiest performance ever.
Germain asked how Martin could have appointed Art Eggleton to the Senate after Eggleton was dropped from Jean Chretien's Cabinet for giving a contract to a girlfriend. Presumably it was because Eggleton had given up his seat and allowed Ken Dryden to run. "And you, and I say this with respect, risk being seen as someone who paid him off in the old style of politics just like everybody else does."
Surprisingly, Martin couldn't answer those accusations or even acknowledge the nature of the question. Accused of a lapse in ethics, he spoke as if the issue hadn't been raised and the question was Eggleton's ability. He rambled on about Eggleton's history as mayor of Toronto, he argued that experience such as Eggleton's will be important in the Senate, and he even said Eggleton had been "a very strong" Cabinet minister, an assertion never to my knowledge made during Eggleton's time in office or since.
Then Martin moved right outside the question: "And I would also ask you to look at the full range of those appointments. For the first time, think about this, a Liberal prime minister appointed NDPers to the Senate, appointed Conservatives to the Senate, and I, I've gotta tell you, I think the Senate's a very important body...."
Germain tried a second time: "You're saying you didn't pay Eggleton off for letting you get Ken Dryden to run?"
Martin: "What I'm saying is that Art Eggleton has had a lifetime career of public service."
Did Martin not understand how he sounded? Is he so locked inside his own ego that he believes a devious and dishonest answer won't be noticed?
Germain introduced the question of Glen Murray, the former mayor of Winnipeg who ran as a Liberal in the 2004 election and lost. Recently Martin gave him a $40,000 assignment to chair the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
When Martin was trying to unseat Chretien, he often spoke of "the democratic deficit," meaning Chretien's failure to give power to MPs. But when the case of Murray arose, Martin reversed himself. The House environment committee, after a hearing, voted against Murray's appointment. The House of Commons, voting on party lines, also turned him down.
Martin ignored both votes and said Murray would be appointed anyway. Germain wanted to know how it was that Martin used to claim committees were important but now ignored this one.
Martin said that he never promised to obey the committees, just to consider their opinions. He wanted to hear what they said, but he retained the right to make appointments. Even on a minor issue like this one, he obviously felt justified in ignoring the MPs, democratic deficit or not.
And, he claimed, he had a reason. He thinks the committee that rejected Murray did a bad thing. While Martin was doing a good thing (finding work for a failed Liberal candidate to help tide him over till the next election), the committee played politics -- "a very unfortunate thing," as Martin said, using his most self-righteous manner.
Again, he abandoned the principle that had been raised -- parliamentary control -- and focused on the qualifications of his candidate. Murray, it seems, was a good mayor, and was "actively involved in environmental matters within his city." He was so good, Martin said, that two other parties wanted him: "In fact, Jack Layton tried to recruit him as a candidate for the NDP in the last election. The Conservatives tried to recruit him as a candidate."
Murray, he suggested, had been ill-treated by the MPs. "I think it's very unfortunate that rather than looking at his qualifications, the opposition parties simply zeroed in on a bunch of partisan politics. If they do that, then these committees aren't going to work. Don't play politics!"
He should have added that when he promised more power for MPs he had in mind a Parliament with a Liberal majority. The freedom he expected he would be granting to members of Parliament was the freedom to agree with the prime minister.