One of Canada’s most important and popular politicians in the 1990s, everyone knew Paul Martin would eventually wind up as prime minister. But then one day he did, and his career stalled. His greatest goals already having been achieved during his eventful tenure as finance minister, Martin’s leadership of Canada was short and mostly uneventful.
Martin grew up around politics with his father, Paul Martin Sr. (1903-1992), serving as a high-profile minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Lester Pearson (1897-1972). Well-connected and wealthy, the younger Martin went into the private sector, serving as CEO of a major Canadian shipping company before winning his first election to Parliament in 1988. When Jean Chretien (b. 1934) became prime minister in 1993, Martin’s corporate background made him a natural choice for finance minister.
Inheriting the job at a time when Canada was facing record deficits and debt, Martin — a strong fiscal conservative — ushered in an era of “austerity budgets” that cut spending, reformed entitlement programs like pensions and welfare, and unloaded greater responsibilities on the country’s provincial governments. Though controversial at first, the economic growth that followed helped earn Martin a reputation as a brilliant fiscal manager.
Much of the later Chretien years consisted of a long-running Liberal “civil war” in which Martin supporters tried to push Prime Minister Chretien into an early retirement. In 2003 Chretien agreed to resign and Martin became prime minister, but the timing proved terrible. Scandalous accusations that the Liberal Party had engaged in a complex money-laundering scheme in Quebec during the 1990s dominated the headlines for virtually all of Martin’s prime ministership, and in 2004 his Liberals lost their parliamentary majority — the first time that had happened to a Canadian prime minister since 1979. For the next year, Martin’s government was tottering and indecisive, and was eventually unseated by a 171-to-133 vote of non-confidence in late 2005. Stephen Harper’s (b. 1959) Conservatives won the ensuing election, and Martin resigned from politics, though he still wades into political debates from time to time.