Meet your neighbor, Paul Martin

With a simplicity that might make the Democratic candidates for 2004 turn green, Canada will get - sans primaries or being yelled at by Chris Matthews - a new leader on Friday. Paul Martin, Canada's former finance minister, was crowned - with virtually no competition - the new head of the Liberal Party in mid- November. He takes over as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien steps down after 10 (it seemed like more) years.

Mr. Martin is not required to call an election until 2005 but will probably not wait that long. It is doubtful he'll lose, as there is no effective opposition to the seemingly always in power Liberal Party.

Still, the change in leaders represents, if not a sea change in policy, then at least a change in style. Martin is mature and diplomatic, less fractious than Mr. Chrétien. But as he has had little opposition within or outside his party, he has not been required to say much regarding his beliefs. One thing he has said, though, is that improving US-Canada relations will be a priority.

Not that that should be difficult after the climate of overt hostility created by Chrétien. Under Chrétien's leadership, a federal politician referred - publicly - to Americans as "bastards," and his communications director called President Bush a "moron." All to the obvious delight of many Canadians. Chrétien blamed Sept. 11 on Western - aka American - "greed" and his transport minister, David Collenette, publicly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union because there'd be no one around to check American "bullying."

Were that not enough, Chrétien gleefully told NATO leaders that "I make it my policy" not to do what the United States wants. So there. He also shook the hand of the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, shortly after the latter made his infamous anti-Semitic comments in October.

Chrétien and Martin have had their own share of conflict, culminating in Martin's being booted out of the federal Cabinet in 2002. (Chrétien said Martin quit. Martin maintains he was fired.) The official line was that the two men could no longer work together, but comments about Chrétien's "megalomania" did get bandied about. Chrétien was said to be angry that - according to him - Martin was already angling for the job of Liberal Party leader.

Regardless, during Martin's term as finance minister, Canada recorded five consecutive budget surpluses and erased a $42 billion deficit. (Prior to his involvement in politics, Martin, the son of another Liberal Party politician, was a success in the private sector, as chairman and CEO of Canada Steamship Lines.)

The cost-cutting was done at the expense, in large part, of the Canadian military, such as it is or was. But Martin's choices most likely came from the overall spirit of the government he was serving. While Canada does have troops in Afghanistan, Chrétien, after much waffling, announced two nights before the start of the war in Iraq that Canada would give no support there.

A recent report from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, suggests that Canada couldn't have offered much anyway, and that in 10 years, without reprioritizing, Canada will not have a military at all. Currently, Romania has more power and influence than Canada does. The electorate, however, doesn't seem worried. As primary beneficiary of America, its neighbor, Canada has the privilege of luxuriating in social programs while the US spends on weapons and sacrifices lives. Martin has promised nothing regarding Iraq, but has said he will increase defense spending. He has also expressed enthusiasm for the missile defense shield endorsed by President Bush.

Another of the few things Martin has already committed to is improving border security in order to quell US concerns about what are perceived to be Canada's lax immigration and refugee policies. He has intimated he will, toward this end, develop an office similar to the US Homeland Security Department. Whether it will be color-coded remains to be seen, but it's a step in the right direction.

Martin has called the deportation to Syria by the US of Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar "unacceptable." Mr. Arar, arrested in 2002 at JFK, was traveling on a Canadian passport and, now returned to Canada, says he was tortured in Syria. Martin says he would not rule out an inquiry into the case.

Other common issues of concern are softwood lumber and the mad-cow scare. Canadian lumber producers must contend with a 27 percent tariff, despite rulings from groups involved with both NAFTA and the WTO taking Canada's side on this matter. And, since one Canadian cow was found to be infected with mad-cow disease earlier this year, Canadian beef producers have lost more than $3 billion. Though cross-border shipments of steaks, burger patties, and roasts have almost returned to pre-panic levels, shipments of live cattle are still being slowed.

There seems little doubt that most of this smoke can be cleared away fairly quickly if Martin douses the fires created by his predecessor.

Days after taking over the Liberal Party leadership, he made a comment to the effect that he wouldn't let Washington push him around. But you have to say stuff like that if you want to lead Canada. It doesn't mean you have to behave childishly.

That giant gush of air you might feel Friday could be several million Canadians breathing a sigh of relief that their new prime minister at least won't embarrass them. We Canadians can be fairly sure we won't see Paul Martin shaking Mahathir Mohamad's hand or stamping his feet. As another Canadian, Shania Twain, sings, the only way is up from here.

Rondi Adamson's conservative social commentary appears frequently in the Canadian press.

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