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Do or die

By Jason Hayes
web posted February 16, 2004

In the rush of headlines questioning Paul Martin's possible involvement in the sponsorship scandal, it is interesting to see how his other glaring inadequacies are being set aside.

Not one headline today discussed the fact that the beleaguered Martin has still not wavered on his refusal to allow a free vote on funding for the firearms registry.

Martin has done nothing to address the distinct lack of democracy in the Canadian Parliament, despite press releases and other assorted smoke and mirrors claiming to have an action plan to do so.

Tough times for Canada's new prime minister
Tough times for Canada's new prime minister

To be fair, his plate is rather full right now with fighting off the media and picking fights with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. However, short of a US-style impeachment or Martin's resignation, Martin will be the prime minister for another four to six months.

This means that when the furor over the sponsorship scandal subsides and the daily workings of government resume, Liberal MP's will still be incapable of representing the wishes of their constituents. Prime Minister Paul Martin has purposefully chosen to do nothing about this problem.

Roger Galloway (Parliamentary Secretary for Democratic Reform) initially assured Canadians that the Martin action plan to address the democratic deficit would allow a free vote on funding for the firearms registry. However, news that a free vote would see funding for the program stopped brought out Martin's true intentions.

After several days of obfuscation both Paul Martin and Government House Leader, Jacques Saada crushed the hopes of Liberal MP's. Saada claimed that spending votes are akin to budget votes, which are by necessity confidence measures. Short version - Liberal MP's will toe the party line or face retribution. Saada's assertion ignored the fact that last year the House voted to freeze funding for the registry and the earth continued to spin.

In reality, the spending estimates are a line item in a budget, not the entire budget. Allowing MP's to vote their conscience or the wishes of their constituents on a line item would not harm the integrity of the party or the goals Martin put forward in the recent Throne Speech.

In fact, a free vote, resulting in a funding freeze for the Firearms Act, would give Martin a greatly needed win on many political fronts. Given his current feeble position in the media and the eyes of the Canadian voter, some leadership and foresight on this issue could do his camp some good.

If Martin could make a clear and decisive move to allow free votes, he would actually regain some small measure of credibility for addressing the democratic deficit. He could continue to save face with the anti-gun lobby by publicly supporting the registry and openly disagreeing with Liberal MP's who chose to vote against it. He could win (a very few) points in the west and with firearms owners for allowing the hated registry to be dismantled. He would also recoup some points with fiscal conservatives for stopping the mismanagement and waste of scarce tax dollars inherent in the management of the Firearms Act. Finally, he would be able to kick start his own legacy by committing to create new firearms legislation to replace the Firearms Act.

This final point would have the added personal benefit for Martin of further tarnishing the luster of Chrétien's legacy at the same time as it bolsters his.

There is no serious immediate political downside for Martin in allowing a free vote and "immediate" political impacts are what must concern him with an election approaching and the sponsorship scandal looming overhead.

Martin is at a key juncture in his very short tenure as prime minister. He can choose to act like a leader and make a much needed decision to allow democratic representation in this country. Failing that, he can cling to his rapidly fading influence and power for a few remaining months, refuse to address the democratic deficit, and quite likely suffer the same embarrassing fate as Kim Campbell did several years ago.

Given Martin's past decisions as prime minister, one does not hold out a great deal of hope for any serious reform. However, the potentially career ending reality of the sponsorship scandal might be enough to encourage new thinking.

Decisions need to be made and for Paul Martin, it is time to do or die.

Jason Hayes is an independent consultant who specializes in environmental, policy, and tech issues. His blog is located at www.hayz.ws/blog.

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