Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Was the McGuinty budget a cause or a catalyst federally?
Much of the discussion about Paul Martin's fortunes in Ontario focus on the McGuinty budget passed a few weeks ago. According to common wisdom, that budget is the primary reason Paul Martin is on the verge of losing this province in the federal election now only two weeks away.
There is no doubt that the budget has impacted Martin's fortunes in the province. But was it a cause of his predicament in Ontario, or was it merely a catalyst for it?
In order to believe it was a cause, you have to believe the people of Ontario are simply directing their anger from one Liberal to the other, without much though to direct responsibility or electoral jurisdiction. A Liberal is a Liberal. And if one of them lied about raising my taxes, I'm gonna punish the other one regardless, so the theory goes.
In order to believe it was a catalyst, that the budget merely hastened a reaction towards Martin instead of directly causing it, you have to believe that Martin never distinguished himself from the deteriorating Liberal brand name on ethics even before the McGuinty budget was passed.
In other words, people are taking their anger out on Martin not because he's just another Liberal, but because he's just another Liberal who has failed to set himself apart as any other kind of Liberal.
Therefore, if Martin had used his five months as Prime Minister to show people in Ontario that he was a different kind of Liberal, a kind of Liberal who would do things differently and bring about a more idealistic style of government - which is what he kept telling us he would do for all those years he wasn't Prime Minister - then the people of Ontario would have probably given him a break and distinguished him from McGuinty and even Chretien.
However, as recent history has shown, Martin's entire tenure since taking over the top job has been rife with indecisiveness, a lack of leadership and, most importantly, a complete failure to do absolutely anything on the ethics front.
So, for months Martin does nothing about Adscam, McGuinty lies about his most recognizable campaign pledge - to not raise taxes, Martin continues to waffle and flail away on the campaign trail, and it just makes it way to easy for the average voter in Ontario to say the following about Martin, "Just another Liberal, that's all."
If you believe voters aren't capable of making distinctions, then the first theory of cause might be just right for you.
If you believe politicians are capable of making distinctions, and the voters are capable of recognizing when they haven't done so, then the second theory of catalyst might be just right for you.
Voting behaviour can often be unpredictable and very difficult to understand. New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord almost gets turfed because of one issue: increasing insurance premiums. Quebec Premier Jean Charest's popularity plummets because of his handling of public sector unions and the pending implementation of tough fiscal measures.
However, if you buy into the catalyst theory, then Martin has no one to blame for his difficulties in Ontario but himself. If you buy into the cause theory, then politicians are much less responsible for their fates than we often assume them to be. I just don't think I buy that.
UPDATE: Evidence of voters' ability to tell the difference between two Liberal politicians comes from a look at how Chretien and Martin were viewed when power was transferred from the former to the latter.
Although Chretien had high approval ratings almost throughout his entire tenure as PM, so did Martin throughout that same period. But Martin entered the period of the transition of power with substantially higher ratings than Chretien.
Therefore, looks like people sure can tell the difference. Perhaps the catalyst of Adscam helped blur the differences people once saw between the two, which is what I'm arguing happened with McGuinty's Ontario budget.
In both instances, a highly admired Liberal politician allowed other Liberal actions to define him by performing as though he was no different.
In other words, Paul Martin has no one to blame but himself.