Memo to Prime Minister Paul Martin [International Economic Policy for a New Liberal Government]

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Memo to: Prime Minister Paul Martin

Subject: International economic policy for a new Liberal government

Date: 1 December 2003

Action plan: Liberal internationalism needs a champion

It is presumptuous, sir, to offer advice to someone who has been as intimately involved in the making of international economic policy as you have been over the last decade and who knows more about it than any of the 19 men and one woman who preceded you in the office you are about to hold. But advice has been requested and so advice is forthcoming.

The approach you take to international economic policy depends on the approach you take to being prime minister. We should probably assume, as the press does, that you have essentially one term in office. You may run for and win re-election, but by then you will be nearing 70 and speculation about the succession will be rife (a syndrome you know well). The question you must ask yourself--and presumably have asked yourself many times--is what kind of prime minister you want to be. Do you want to aim for greatness? Or, assuming for the moment that these are mutually exclusive, do you simply want to improve things, to leave Canadian life better when you leave office than it is today?

In its flagship magazine, Policy Options politiques, the Institute for Research on Public Policy recently ranked the prime ministers of the last 50 years.(1) Although in its current incarnation the IRPP is hardly a hotbed of liberalism (or Liberalism), and although the 30 persons polled included small-c conservatives such as David Bercuson, Daniel Schwanen, and Thomas Courchene (as well as farther-left types such as Desmond Morton, Mark Starowicz and Antonia Maioni), the prime minister who ranked highest in the poll was Lester Pearson. On a 10-point scale based on performance in managing the federation and encouraging unity, fostering economic growth and fiscal responsibility, promoting Canada's role in the world and furthering social policy, Pearson averaged 7.5 points. In second place came Brian Mulroney, with 6.6 points, followed by Pierre Trudeau (6.0 points), Louis St. Laurent (6.8 points),(2) your immediate predecessor (6.1 points) and John Diefenbaker (4.7 points).

The IRPP panel was also asked to categorize each prime minister's leadership as "transformational," "transitional" or "transactional." Note well, sir: the prime ministers who ranked first, second and third were all regarded as "transformational." Twenty-two panelists categorized Mr. Pearson that way, 23 Mr. Mulroney and 24 Mr. Trudeau. By contrast, among the bottom three, only four panelists thought Mr. St. Laurent was "transformational," only two thought Mr. Diefenbaker was, and not a single panelist--not one--thought your immediate predecessor was "transformational." That may be unfair to that gentleman. Taking the country (with your assistance, of course, sir) back to a world in which federal deficits are beyond the pale politically may in time be regarded as a transformational achievement, and so may the Plan A/Plan B response to the near-death experience of the second Quebec referendum, which for the moment seems to have dealt separatism a body blow. Be that as it may, the larger message from the ranking is that to shine in history prime ministers must be "transformational." Mr. Pearson was transformational with the maple leaf flag, the B&B commission, Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan; Mr. Trudeau gave us a patriated constitution and a charter of rights; and Mr. Mulroney brought us free trade with the United States, though his proposed constitutional reforms were a transformation too far.

One plausible response to such a ranking is to reject it out of hand. The job of a prime minister is not necessarily to do things so big even the most myopic historian can see them but to provide better lives for Canadians. No doubt our transformational prime ministers thought the big changes they sought would do that. …