PM’s right-hand man grits & bares all

Tim Murphy, Paul Martin’s chief of staff, said that during the federal election campaign he spends 80 per cent of his day with the prime minister.
Tim Murphy, Paul Martin’s chief of staff, said that during the federal election campaign he spends 80 per cent of his day with the prime minister.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Norman

Over the past six weeks of campaign chaos, the faces of the Canadian federal party leaders have been inescapable. Many of the parties’ key strategists, however, shade themselves from the limelight, all the while wholly involved in the political process. Among those behind the scenes is Tim Murphy, a man whose name and face may be unfamiliar to most. But as Prime Minister Paul Martin’s chief of staff, his invisible hands are among the most influential in shaping Liberal policy.

Murphy, Arts ’82, is a former Journal editor in chief who practiced law until running the Ontario campaign during Martin’s first unsuccessful bid for Liberal Party leadership in 1989-1990. Murphy won a seat in the provincial legislature in 1993 until his loss to a Conservative in 1995. In 2001, he was hired by then-finance minister Martin as a senior political advisor, and promoted to Chief of Staff when Martin became prime minister.

Murphy took a break Tuesday morning from prepping Martin for the French language debate that night to talk up the Liberals and talk down the Conservatives.

Journal: Reflecting on your time at Queen’s, can you tell me how studying here influenced you, if at all, towards your present political affiliation?

Tim Murphy: Probably not toward my affiliation, but through the course of it, I decided, as I say to people, “I’d rather do, than write about doing.” I very much enjoyed [working for the Journal] and I liked writing the editorials, and at the end of the day I realized I was more interested in shaping the events than writing about them.

How many hours a day do you spend working on the campaign?

It’s a split. I do government work and campaign work, so the combination together is about 18-hour days.

How many of those hours are spent with Mr. Martin?

Quite a bit, actually. It varies, obviously. During the campaign I’m with him 80 per cent of the time. When we’re in government, I see him two or three times a day and the rest of the time is meetings with cabinet ministers, public servants, members of the public, university presidents, community leaders, etc., etc.

Can you explain briefly what your role as chief of staff has entailed during this campaign?

Two functions: I continue to be the primary liaison between the prime minister and the public service, and members of the cabinet and the respective governing matters. So it’s everything from keeping track of what’s happening internationally, everything from monitoring the hostage situation in Iraq, to the status of President [Ariel] Sharon in the [Middle East], and we’ve got ongoing issues, we try to help out in the softwood industry because of what the Americans have been up to, so we try and make sure we can get that help for the industry and community’s workers out the door, so a range of issues like that. And then obviously the campaign. There I help shape the message of the day and a fair degree [of my work] has to do with shaping the policies we’re running on.

How do you feel Mr. Martin performed in Monday’s English debate in Montreal?

He was fabulous. The point of the debates is to frame the choice Canadians have to make, in terms of their votes. I think what he showed was there are two different views of Canada, and between Mr. Harper and himself that there were two different sets of values. When you think about investment in education, you think about protecting minority rights, you think about getting the guns off our streets, you think about building a national childcare program, those are all the things Mr. Martin, the prime minister, stood for and those are all the things Stephen Harper is against. And I thought it was a great opportunity to see that choice.

Martin suggested in the debate a new piece of policy, asking Mr. Harper whether he would support the Liberals in a policy change regarding the notwithstanding clause. Can you comment on whether, if re-elected, the Liberals would go as far as to either withdraw or modify the notwithstanding clause? Why?

Our proposal is to get rid of the notwithstanding clause, in respect of federal powers. In other words, what we’re saying and what we’re challenging Mr. Harper and others to do is say look, every Canadian’s rights [are] protected under the Charter, and the way it’s drafted now is those rights can be taken away by the wave of the majority. And fundamentally that isn’t really protecting minority rights if that can happen. So what we’re saying is “Let’s get that out of the Charter, let’s get that out of the constitution regarding federal powers.” So Mr. Harper, for example, uses sophistry to deny that he would use the notwithstanding clause to roll back the clock on same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian marriages. We know absolutely that, because he tries to argue he doesn’t need to. Well that’s just sophistry. We know his position is to oppose same-sex marriages and we have every reason to believe he would roll that back. But think about the woman’s right to choose, the same idea that they could have a private member’s bill and they’d have a free vote. Well a woman’s rights to choose would be subject to threat under that. Our proposal is “Let’s take away that tool from the people who would deny us our right.”

Take me through a typical strategizing session with Mr. Martin. Can you describe the dynamic?

He is a strong-willed, opinionated man. He has strong ideas in every circumstance about what he wants. He likes exchanges where people who have different views, different analysis, different ideas come to the table and fight for their points of view. I have to say one of the things that amazes me is that you can find, in people who have succeeded in life, they tend to have a point of view and stick with it and don’t change. Well, it’s amazing that Mr. Martin is a guy who starts from a strong, principled base but is prepared to listen to good arguments on the other side, and it’s a real strength.

Has there ever been a time when you found the two of you fundamentally disagreed on policy?

There are just some things that stay between [him and me]. In the government, when he announces policy, at the end of the day, he’s elected and I’m not. The members of the Liberal caucus are elected, and I’m not, so at the end of the day, they’re the people who, because the voters voted for them, determine what the policy is. So whether I agree or disagree at that point becomes irrelevant. I give my best advice, but they’re the people who Canadians have elected to make decisions, and no one elected me to make decisions.

What do you think is the single most important piece of policy the Liberals should and will roll out if re-elected?

I think there are two of them, actually. One of the promises that builds on a lot of stuff we’ve done which is quite exciting, is what we call our 50/50 plan, which is they will pay half of the tuition in any university or college in first year and half the tuition in last year, their graduation year. Pure grant. And every student gets that.

In addition, lower income students will get half of their tuition up to $3,000 paid for all four years. And basically, when you look at, if we’re going to succeed as a society, if we’re going to have people who have the skills, the training, the knowledge and the ability to survive in the economy that’s coming, we’ve got to give them an education. I think that kind of investment by a federal government, ensuring people can get over the hump, you know, not alone, but a grant, can be hugely important.

The second thing is we’ve got a new policy called the family leave program. We know that people in the course of their lives at some point are going to have to take care of a family member, a loved one, a sick child, a friend. We’re saying that people should be able, through the course of their lives, to take eight weeks off with paid benefits. In other words, they get paid to take that time off to help family members. So if you know a mother, father, brother, sister, great friend who is sick, you can go spend that time.

I think those two [pieces of policy] reflect the social values we share, which I think differentiates us from Stephen Harper, who fundamentally believes in a fend-for-yourself society. His idea of a social program is to give people a tax cut and say “Go fend for yourself.” And we say no, we actually have the responsibility to pull together for each other. That’s the fundamental difference in the attitude between Stephen Harper and Paul Martin.

At this phase in the last election, the Liberals were down significantly in terms of being in the favour of Canadians, according to media coverage and polls. Currently, the media reports are again starting to say Mr. Martin has been falling out of favour. The polls are also showing a surge for the Tories. The most visible strategy the Liberals used to combat this last time was via negative ads and messages.

Is this the strategy you’re going to take this time?

All elections are fundamentally about the same thing, which is voters making a choice about who they think can best lead them, and the values that that person holds. What I think happened last time, and what I think is happening this time is people look around, say “OK, well, I’m going to spend a little time thinking about this choice,” and then they start to focus more, the media focus more, and I think this time like last time, Canadians will take a closer look at Stephen Harper and reconsider. They realize this is a guy who said, “The American conservative movement … was an inspiration, and that Canada is second rate,” I think they’ll make a judgment that that’s not what they want.

When did Mr. Harper make such a statement?

He gave a speech to this right wing group of the United States in the late 1990s. He was behind closed doors, secret. But it got out. And he called Canada “second-rate.” He said we’ll never have as good a national identity as the Americans and he said their conservative movement was an inspiration.

Why do you think the Conservatives are starting to surge in the polls?

I think, as I said, campaigns are all the same. People look around to see what choices are available. I think what you’re seeing is people kicking the tires, but they haven’t made their minds up, they want to see what’s there and when they come to see what’s there, they’ll realize it doesn’t match their values and it doesn’t match their views of Canada.

How do you intend to turn these results around? What can we expect to see in the final weeks of the campaign?

You’ll see us talking about those two different ideas of Canada, and the values and the policies that are reflected in them. We’ll spend our time saying, “Look, if you want a Canada that is modeled on what Mike Harris gave Ontario in the ’90s, then vote for Stephen Harper.”

Credibility and trust are central campaign issues. In the wake of the Gomery report, and with the opposition parties constantly hammering the Liberals with phrases like “culture of entitlement,” “scandal” and “arrogance,” there must be some rising emotions within Team Martin. As someone who works so closely with Mr. Martin, why do you think voters should continue to trust him?

He’s the guy when faced with the tough decisions, has made them and made the right ones. You look back at the career of a guy who has always acted with integrity, who has always done what he said he would do. He said he would eliminate the deficit, he did eliminate the deficit. In the last election when he was running for election as Prime Minister in his own riding he said “Elect me and I will invest in healthcare, I will invest in cities and I will invest in childcare,” and all three things happened. So here’s a man who does what he says he is going to do. I mean, even take the Gomery [report], there are people, even media, who said “Oh, he should have swept that under the rug.” But he’s a guy who faced up to it and said “No, there’s a responsibility I owe to Canadians to get to the bottom and to fix it. And I think when you think about it, wouldn’t we really rather have someone like that leading us?

There’s been a number of questions raised regarding the circumstances surrounding the Liberal income trust announcement on Nov. 23, especially since the RCMP began their investigation. I understand there are stipulations regarding the privacy of this issue, but I was hoping you could tell me when you learned about the policy announcement?

No. The RCMP have said, quite clearly, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by anyone. And other than that, it is just opposition allegations, and I’m not going to give those allegations any credibility.

Would you mind at all, just briefly taking me through what you were up to that day?

No. I’m not going to give their allegations any credibility.

I’ve noticed you’ve only mentioned Stephen Harper through this conversation. Do the Liberals believe this is a two-horse race?

Yes, there’s no question. Even Jack Layton said there’s only two people who will become prime minister. It’s important to look at why. When you look at things like Kyoto, the climate change accord, and you look at going to war in Iraq, you look at signing a ballistic missile deal … those are all three things Stephen Harper could do if he was prime minister. Those are the prime minister’s powers. So voting for Jack Layton won’t stop Stephen Harper, because he can do that if he’s prime minister.

There’s been some speculation that losing this election will mean the end of party leadership for Mr. Harper or Mr. Martin. In the event that this does occur and the Liberals lose the next election, who do you think should take up leadership of the Liberal party?

I think Liberals have a lot of confidence in Mr. Martin and so I expect to see him there for a long time to come.

If the Liberals were to lose, what will this mean for you and your career?

I’m in the role I am because I believe in a particular kind of Canada, and an idea of Canada, so my involvement is focused in that, so I will continue to work towards that no matter what job I hold. For me, politics is not a career, it’s a vocation. It’s about an idea of fighting for a kind of Canada you want. You can do that if you work directly, you can do that if you’re working out in the private sector and helping out. So I’ll continue to do that no matter what job I do.

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