12 May 2016

Paul Martin—Canada's greatest finance minister?

Paul Martin's official prime ministerial portrait was unveiled on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. During the ceremony, he was referred to as the greatest finance minister in our history—lavish praise indeed. But deserving? I believe so. He did at least three things that, in my mind, place him in that rarefied position.

First, he balanced the budget after a string of Conservative and Liberal government deficits let the national debt get out of hand. He was ruthless, cutting nearly every department, and many on the left were furious at his assaults on social programs and the CBC. Being on the left myself I cringed at these cuts, but I am also a child of the 1930s, born during the Great Depression, and many of my generation have frugality, a "make do" attitude, etched into our bones. I therefore supported, albeit reluctantly, balancing the federal budget as a necessary and courageous act. He didn't make the cuts the way I would have, but then politicians often follow policies contrary to my infinite wisdom and yet, to my surprise, they work.

Secondly, he put the Canada Pension Plan on a sound footing. Previously it had been used recklessly as a source of cheap loans for the provinces. He created an independent board with investment in the hands of professional management, greatly enhancing financial security for millions of older Canadians, of which I am one.

And thirdly, he resisted enormous pressure from the Americans (and the Brits) to deregulate our banking industry, thus saving our financial bacon during the crash of 2008. Ironically, Stephen Harper usually gets credit for managing us through the crisis when, if he had been prime minister during the 1990s, he would almost certainly have collaborated enthusiastically in deregulation, an approach right up his neoliberal alley.

These three achievements alone, all of singular importance to the health, economic and otherwise, of our country, elevate the Right Honourable gentleman to the top rank of finance ministers. The greatest? He has my vote.


  1. Very well done, Bill. There are a great many on the Left today who still vilify Martin. It's partisan pap of course. He did cut and the cuts hurt but we were in a mess. To his critics I invite them to remember how generalissimo Rick Hillier rejoiced, flinging himself into the lap of Shifty Steve Harper, his personal savior, for rescuing the Canadian forces from their penurious "decade of darkness" under the Liberals.

  2. I agree with you Bill. I remember the economy was in the tank when Martin became Minister of Finance. He step by step not only brought it back, but made it into a thriving success. Remember the cover of the Economist titled "Cool Canada". A country with successful fiscal policy and healthy social programs. That was mainly because of Paul Martin. Also what he did with First Nations. "The Kelowna agreement was like no other and was negotiated with First Nations at the table. It would have accomplished so much for First Nations. Harper rejected it.One of the most important is what you said about Martin refusing to deregulate the banks. I may be wrong ,but I thought he even added more regulations to banks. He also master minded the G20, adding many more countries in global decision making. He was a highly respected man on the world stage. He was also an idealist,believing in self dermination for Canada's First Nations. I would love if he was our PM now.

    1. We often focus on Martin's contributions to finance and overlook his social programs which were equally impressive. The Kelowna Accord is a good example. Another is his national day care plan, signed with all 10 provinces but unfortunately scrapped under Harper.

  3. Martin's cuts hurt the poor and struggling, while the rich and well connected got favours that gave them more wealth and power. The elites did not have to tighten their belts or make sacrifices for the common good.