Martin breaks silence on Tories: Calls for United Party; Next leader must reverse damage done by Harper's government, ex-PM says

PUBLICATION: Montreal Gazette | DATE: 2006.11.30 | BYLINE: ELIZABETH THOMPSON | SOURCE: The Gazette

The next Liberal leader not only has to unite the party but has to undo the damage inflicted by the Conservatives on the environment, help for aboriginal Canadians, early learning and childcare, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin said yesterday.

In an interview with The Gazette on the eve of a tribute to his political career, Martin said the Conservatives have reversed a lot of the progress that was made by his government.

Breaking his self-imposed rule of not criticizing the Harper government, Martin said the last election was marked by two very different visions of Canada but that Canadians were willing to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think anyone could have believed that the Conservatives would walk away from childcare, that they would walk away from the aboriginals, that they would walk away from climate change."

However, Martin said, the Canadian government cannot avoid those issues.

"The problem with the Conservatives is that what they are trying to do is undo everything but not do anything. I believe that the early learning and childcare agenda is such a necessary part of building a stronger country that they may have delayed it but they simply cannot kill it," he said.

Canada's role in the world is another area where the Conservatives can't bury their heads in the sand.

"There is a need for Canada to play a role in developing a better way for countries to deal with each other to round off the hard edges of globalization. Those are all, in my opinion, so necessary that there is no way the Conservatives can stop it. It's going to happen."

Asked whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper's handling of the recent APEC summit in Hanoi had damaged Canada's relations with China, Martin suggested it may have.

"I hope it does not have repercussions," said Martin, who is embarking on a trip to China shortly after the convention.

He also disputed Harper's suggestion that he and other Liberal prime minister's were so eager to promote trade that they failed to promote human rights.

"I have never met with the Chinese leadership and not raised it. I have raised it privately and publicly"

The next Liberal leader will have to face these issues and should be someone "of strong personal conviction," he said.

"You have to believe very strongly that this is what has to happen."

However, that was as far as Martin was willing to go in response to one question he has refused to answer -

who he will support when delegates begin the unpredictable process of choosing their next leader.

All of the candidates have the personal conviction he says the next leader needs. All the candidates have what it takes, in Martin's mind, to unite the Liberals around their leadership and win the next election.

"I feel very good about the state of the party and I feel very good about those candidates."

Martin said he also believes the party is in good shape, that it has a strong caucus and that the perception of division between his supporters and those of his predecessor, Jean Chretien, are exaggerated.

"I don't buy the Chretien Liberal, the Martin Liberal. Basically Liberals supported Prime Minister Chretien and then they supported me."

In a few days, he is confident they will support his successor. "It is very important when the race is over that everybody unite behind the leader and that is what has to happen."

ethompson@thegazette.canwest.com