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Martin has a tough act to follow 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:50 p.m. February 9, 2005]

Prime Minister Paul Martin is set to begin testimony at the Gomery inquiry on Thursday. 

OTTAWA — In showbiz, the saying goes, "Never follow animals or children" on stage.  

After the performance former prime minister Jean Chretien put on at the Gomery inquiry on Tuesday, you could say never follow defiant, autographed golf-ball wielding former PM's on the witness chair. 

Chretien's performance resonated with Liberals so much that on Wednesday morning Chretien was given a standing ovation at the weekly Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill. 

Among those giving a standing ovation was Prime Minister Paul Martin. 

"Mr. Martin is very supportive of Mr. Chretien and what he's done," Liberal caucus chair Andy Savoy said after the meeting. "Everybody in the entire caucus was extremely proud of Mr. Chretien.

"Mr. Chretien was a small-town guy opening a big town can of whoop ass on his detractors." 

But Prime Minister Paul Martin now has the task of following Chretien's opening act at the Gomery inquiry. Does he have a can of something of his own?  

On Tuesday, reporters witnessed a masterful performance by the former PM, who was able to take control of both ends of the news cycle created by his appearance. 

While reporters who followed the inquiry closely for the past six months and Gomery may have had specific questions about Treasury Board submissions, Privy Council memos and cabinet committee minutes they wanted answered, Chretien took advantage of the Gomery inquiry press party crashers there to see the PM. These reporters were more interested in the big picture than the small details. 

"The hearing room at the Old City Hall in Ottawa was packed for the first time in six months," observed the Globe and Mail's Daniel Leblanc -- the reporter who has been following this story before Groupaction became a household word --- in his story on Wednesday. 

Gomery, in effect, was the unpopular kid on the block who suddenly had a pool and lots of friends on Tuesday and that pool was Jean Chretien. 

Chretien, who had remained relatively silent on the sponsorship issue for the past year, was able to spin his own yarn in his own words - not in defensive responses from loaded questions from inquiry counsel -- in a lengthy 35-minute statement. 

His statement contained so many messages, hidden messages, insights, opinions and veiled jabs that the media was overwhelmed. 

"I have been looking forward to this occasion because it gives me the opportunity to try to put certain things in their proper perspective for you and the Canadian public," Chretien said.

The early television and wire reports were all Chretien -- in his own words. 

Chretien spent most of the morning and the afternoon answering questions about Liberals who received sponsorship subcontracts and donations to his election campaigns. But that news was quickly erased by Chretien's game of name the world leader's golf balls. 

By the evening, most television news reports consisted of images of Chretien and the golf balls and sound bites from Chretien's opening statement. 

As for his answers to questions from commission counsel Bernard Roy, most of those clips ended up on the cutting room floor. 

Now along comes Paul Martin. 

While Martin's game plan is not known, he cannot operate using Chretien's playbook. 

After all, Martin is the man who was "mad as hell" and said he was "sick and deeply, deeply troubled about what happened." 

He cannot simply shrug dozens of questions with one-word answers like Chretien did. 

And he cancelled the sponsorship program. 

He cannot suddenly adopt Chretien's total support for a program he killed. If the cause of national unity was so great, why did he kill it? 

"Let me just simply say that I believe that what occurred in the Sponsorship Program, the broken rules, the abuse of taxpayers' money and the breach of public trust is inexcusable," Martin said days after the auditor general released her report. 

Martin will most likely be asked about what he knew about the program.

Chretien provided some insight in his opening statement Tuesday by reminding everyone that the decision to spend money on a national unity strategy was taken with full support of the cabinet in 1996. And that Martin personally approved and was aware of a special $50 million reserve the PM held for national unity that was used to fund the first years of the sponsorship program. That reserve was eliminated in the last federal budget. 

The PM has also provided a timeline over the past year about what he knew about the scandal and when he knew it. 

It goes as follows: 

1997 - Sponsorship program launched. "We all understood what it was about," Martin said.

2000 - Questions regarding management problems began to be raised after an internal public works audit was made public. 

2002 - Deputy minister of public works tells a Commons committee that the department detected no sign of dishonesty of fraud and the problems were only administrative. That same year Auditor General Sheila Fraser unearthed problems with contracts given to communications firm Groupaction.

"That is when I began to understand that what had occurred went far beyond administrative failures and involved possible criminal conduct," the PM said. "But even then, no one understood the full scope of what was involved until the Auditor General's report came out recently." 

And Martin's name has come up a couple of times in documents and testimony at the inquiry. 

In October, the inquiry released a document showing that someone from Martin's riding office lobbied for a sponsorship grant for a sports organization chaired by Martin fundraiser Serge Savard. 

"Paul Martin's office telephoned us to find out why Les Internationaux du Sport de Montreal (Savard's group) hasn't had a response to their sponsorship request for $600,000," wrote Joanne Bouvier, an aide to former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano, in 1999. Government records show the group eventually received a $250,000 grant from the program. 

The Prime Minister's Office has denied any connection between the fundraising and the intervention by Martin's office in the grant. And Martin has compared the intervention to the regular work done by a riding office acting on behalf of its constituents who are having problems with things such as visas. 

Martin may also be asked about his relationship with Claude Boulay, president of Groupe Everest. Everest is one of the ad firms cited in the auditor general's report on the sponsorship program. 

In November government lawyers delayed the release of a letter from Martin to Boulay. 

"Dear Claude," the then finance minister writes. "The services that you offer could interest my Federal Office of Regional Development for Quebec, for which I am the responsible minister. Your letter has been transferred to my office in Montreal for its information." 

Inquiry counsel Bernard Roy said the development office later rewarded a $50,000 contract to Everest. 

And a sleeper issue for the prime minister will be his ties with the lobbying and communications firm Earnscliffe. 

Much of Martin's informal and formal inner circle have either worked or still work at the lobbying and communications firm. 

The Bloc Quebecois, which has standing at the inquiry, has suggested that Martin could be faced with questions about contracts awarded to the communications end of the firm at the inquiry. 

Last week in the House of Commons, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe asked if government lawyers would not object to the PM answering questions about the firm. 

Whenever Earnscliffe or non-advertising firms pop up during Gomery testimony, government lawyers rise out of their seats to object and remind Gomery that the inquiry is about advertising and not polling and communications. 

Gomery's terms of reference is to "investigate and report on questions raised, directly or indirectly" from the auditor general's report, including "the selection of communications and advertising agencies."

While Chretien had his legacy on the line, Martin will walk into Justice Gomery's inquiry Thursday with his government potentially on the line. 

But those close to Martin do not feel he has to live up to the performance given this week by his predecessor. 

"This isn't the Academy Awards," said Martin insider and Earnscliffe principal Michael Robinson on CBC Newsworld's Politics Wednesday evening. 

Robinson said Martin will be there to simply answer the inquiry's questions "truthfully and honestly and let that be part of the inquiry's own work."

Martin begins his testimony at 9:30 a.m. ET. 

He will be the final witness in Gomery's Ottawa phase of hearings. 

The judge will then move his inquiry to Montreal where he will hear from ad agency executives. 

: Related Links

> Chretien's opening remarks

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