Martin rallies troops for one last time

PUBLICATION: The Toronto Star | DATE: 2006.12.01 | BYLINE: Les Whittington | SOURCE: Toronto Star

Paul Martin slammed the "cold ideology" of the Conservatives and urged Liberals never to give up the fight for "progress and fairness" as the former prime minister rallied his party's troops one last time.

Bowing out at the convention called to choose his successor, Martin recalled the high points of his years in government and reminded delegates of the need to defend the Liberals' legacy.

"We may have lost an election, but we will never lose the faith," he said in the text of his speech at the end of a star-studded evening in his honour.

In an attempt to mend the internal divisions from his decade-long struggle for control of the party, Martin spared a few kind words for rival Jean Chretien.

"I am proud to have served in his cabinet," said Martin, who was finance minister under Chretien for nine years until leadership tensions sparked a showdown between the two Liberal stalwarts. Chretien, expected to arrive at the convention later today, was not present.

Discarding the low-key role he has assumed since the party was defeated in the Jan. 23 election, Martin issued a call to arms against Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

"At a time when the need is real, the Conservatives have targeted some of the most vulnerable in our society," he said in a reference to the Harper government's recent cuts to social programs.

"The Conservative agenda seeks only to satisfy those who agree with their cold ideology."

He said Liberals gathered here should join together to "send a message" to the Conservatives that the goal of creating a "progressive society" will not disappear. "Progress and fairness may be delayed but they will not be denied."

For all the gala performances and glowing personal tributes, it was a sad evening for Martin, who claimed the leadership of the party amid overflowing optimism at a convention in Toronto three years ago. He served as prime minister from Dec. 12, 2003 to Feb. 6, 2006.

Last night, he used his speech to defend his record as finance minister - when he achieved a lasting legacy by putting the country's finances in order - and as prime minister.

Taking steps to combat climate change and cementing a long-term health-care agreement with the provinces were among the highlights Martin cited. He also took credit for legalizing same-sex marriage and signing the $5 billion Kelowna Accord to improve native living conditions.

"There are those who say we tried to do too much," he acknowledged. "Well, I would rather have tried to do too much than be guilty of caring too little."

It makes him proud to be a Liberal when he sees how the Conservatives have turned their backs on aboriginals by moving away from the Kelowna Accord, Martin said. Or how the Harper government has turned its back on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The party, with input from Martin, brought together a stellar line-up of performers and renowned figures from business and public affairs for the tribute.

Headlining the evening was fiddler Natalie MacMaster, a Martin favourite.

Wallace McCain, co-founder of the McCain food empire, lavished Martin with praise, as did business figures Raymond Garneau and Pierre Beaudry.

Also on hand were former astronaut Marc Garneau, ex-World Bank head James Wolfenson, retired general turned senator Romeo Dallaire and MP Tina Keeper, who once starred in "North of 60."

There were also video tributes from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and other world leaders.