Toronto Sun

Sunday, May 2, 1999

Martin dumps on poor kids

By MICHAEL HARRIS
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA -- When it comes to their dealings with Paul Martin, most members of the Liberal caucus do not need a wheelbarrow to carry the family jewels.

An aspirin bottle would do just fine.

In fact, many have already made him the present of a few useless glands. No big loss. They never used them much anyway.

As every source-sucking sluggo in Ottawa knows, Mr. Martin is about to ascend to the leadership of the Liberal Party. Ergo, there is much to be gained by tugging one's forelock before speaking to the great man, and nothing from kicking him in the shins when his arrogance, lack of liberalism, or misplaced fiscal conservatism shine through. In the current dust-up over what to do about the recommendations of the House of Commons subcommittee on sport, all three deficiencies have shown up like zits on a beauty queen.

Without even returning the frantic telephone calls of committee chairman Dennis Mills, (in fairness to Martin, he was up to his abacus in G-7 business) the finance minister has gutted the heart and soul of the Mills report, Sport in Canada: There will be no federal money for the annual $63-million child-sport-tax credit Mills and his colleagues so badly wanted after studying the issue for two years.

"We can find $150 million bucks for the Kosovar Albanians at the drop of a hat, and I support that, but we can't find $63 million for the 1.3 million Canadian kids who live below the poverty line to give them access to rinks and equipment? Paul Martin showed his true colours. He did nothing. What kind of vision of Canada is that? And this guy wants to be leader of the Liberal Party," Mills said in an interview.

Bad news

Mills didn't have to wait until this week, when the government tabled its response to his two-year study, to get the bad news.

Days before the official government response, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps invited Mills to breakfast and gave him advance warning of Martin's decision. Copps, who earns high marks from Mills for her staunch support of the committee's recommendations, 40 of which were accepted by government, broke the news that the finance minister wasn't about to loosen the purse strings for poor kids who want to get in the game.

"Poor Sheila. I couldn't finish my orange juice, let alone my coffee. I just had to get up and go. When I talked to a few colleagues about taking Martin on publicly, they said it would be the first time that someone went after his neck. But what could I do? He killed my baby," Mills said.

With so many Grits clamoring to kiss him where the sun doesn't shine, Martin is used to uncritical embraces from those who see him as a shoo-in to replace Jean Chretien, when he and Lloyd Robertson finally put away the Oil of Olay and give the B-team a chance. That kind of sucking up has turned Martin's daily life in Ottawa into a modern day candidate's movie, grade B all the way.

In crossing Mills, though, the finance minister is taking on an MP who doesn't mind beating you in the alley if you happen to beat him on the ice. Martin may have a one-goal lead after the first period, but stand by folks. This game is far from over, as last week's Liberal caucus clearly showed.

"I walked up to the prime minister and whispered in his good ear that I applaud Sheila Copps for supporting the report, I applaud John Manley for trying to finesse something through the system for our small-market NHL franchises," Mills said. "But I also told him that I am ashamed that the minister of finance could not find the money to help poor kids get involved in sports. I'm confident he heard the message and that Martin's decision will be reversed."

Mills was justifiably contemptuous of colleagues who advised him to campaign for his child-sport-tax-credit in the next budget, the one, I suspect, where Paul Martin will emerge like Scrooge after his encounter with the spirits.

"How utterly dumb. You know, Liberals are suppose to speak for the people who can't speak for themselves. How can we not stand up for these poor kids? How can we not give them the break that may make all the difference in their lives? A lot of people in this party have forgotten where we came from."

It may all come down to politics. Surprise, surprise. After months of courting the media, the owners of the NHL's so-called small-market teams have finally got enough influence at court to get a sniff at franchise-savings tax-breaks from Ottawa. The federal government, in the person of John Manley, plans future meetings with premiers, municipalities, (and hopefully the NHL's players association if there is any justice in this world) to see if anything can be done about levelling the playing-field between Canadian and American clubs.

PM's dilemma

If those meetings succeed, and there is every reason to suspect that they might with influential Liberals like Rod Bryden involved, the prime minister will find himself in a dilemma. How can Ottawa ride to the rescue of professional sports franchises, (even ones that show the fight of a geriatric sunfish before hitting the golf links in four straight) and give poor kids and amateurs the butt end?

The short answer is that it can't, unless the PM and Paul Martin want to explain why rich businessmen and super-rich athletes should get federal help, and a million poor kids can go whistle. For Mills, the issue is deeply personal, and as much about spiritual as physical development.

"A Russian cab driver told me the other day that he's got two kids, 9 and 13. He said that all he could do was buy them a couple of cheap sticks and let them play road-hockey. He just can't afford to get them into organized sport. That's wrong. That's why I'm going to call Paul and tell him this: 'No matter what you do, I will probably never support you for the leadership. But you just can't walk away from this, because I'm going to be there on your ass until you do the right thing.'"

Rodman isn't the only Dennis with attitude. Thank God.


Michael Harris can be e-mailed at mharris@istar.ca.
He is The Sun's national affairs columnist.
Letters to the editor should be sent to editor@sunpub.com.


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