Live & Learn: Paul Martin Jr.

On politics, being prime minister and 9/11.

Born on Aug. 28, 1938, in Windsor, Ont. • Sports fan, shipping tycoon, deficit slayer, statesman

Public life is a gamble. You can do an enormous amount of good, but it takes a lot of time to rise to a position of influence, and there are no guarantees. You can spend an entire career and never make it to where you need to be.

It is easy to say politics is dominated by self-serving sophists. But that’s largely said by individuals who don’t make contributions in any way, shape or form. They don’t volunteer at local hospitals or join community organizations or NGOs. They typically watch an awful lot of TV.

Being prime minister doesn’t matter. What matters is leaving the world a slightly better place. Very few prime ministers had the career my dad had. He made a huge contribution to social policy and Canada’s role in the world.

The PM job was pretty much what I expected. But as a finance minister I could dig into the problems I faced, such as fighting the deficit. Prime ministers deal with more issues but at nowhere near the same level. The inability to really get into everything I wanted to get into while running the country was somewhat unexpected.

Top-secret briefings on security issues can keep prime ministers up at night. But for me, on a consistent basis, it was the plight of aboriginal Canadians and Africa. Progress is being made on poverty, but it’s unpardonably slow. And frustration keeps me awake more than anything.

I was pretty good at high-school football. When I tried out in university, I thought I was great. I didn’t prepare and didn’t make it. That taught me to never be half-hearted about things I want.

My first job was picking tobacco at 14. It taught me I’d be better off with another job.

I’ve always loved shipping. The summer after picking tobacco, I got a job on a fishing boat. During university, I worked tugs in the high Arctic and shipped out deep-sea.

At Power Corp., I was essentially a firefighter. One day, they asked me to become president of Canada Steamship Lines. I grabbed it.

I wasn’t destined to be a great scientist or philosopher, so my choice was clear. I left business for public life because I wanted my life to be worthwhile and it was time for me to fish or cut bait.

CSL has done well without me. And my two sons who are now involved in the company have made it clear they don’t want me to fix something that isn’t broken. That’s fine. I have other things to focus on.

Our nation never recognized the need to give aboriginal Canadians a market economy. I am using my political capital to work on that full-time.

A free market society is by far the best system for creating wealth and allocating scarce resources. I buy that absolutely. Rising tides, however, do not lift all boats. That’s the essence of modern liberalism, which is why the role of government is the redistribution of wealth in terms of providing decent health care and education.

China is one market with 1.3 billion people. Africa is more than 900 million with 53 separate economic entities. It doesn’t take a stroke of genius to understand it needs to follow the European Union example. That’s another thing I’m working on.

The G8 needs to share influence. Think about climate change or infectious diseases or the next financial crisis. Not having China or India at the table simply makes no sense.

After terrorists hit the World Trade Center, I was immediately on the phone with G7 finance ministers and central bankers. We stayed there for almost 48 hours. Our good working relationship allowed us to do what was required to keep markets from failing. But we were lucky. If you recall the anticipated Y2K crisis, then you know organizations built backup computer systems for a programming failure that never occurred. What a waste, people said. Well, without that waste, we could have been hamstrung on 9/11. The world financial system could have gone down.

The capacity to not really answer the question when asked what I like best about my personality is probably what I like most about myself. My worst trait is not always having what it takes to use that capacity.

A perfect Saturday night is on the farm winning a game of hearts with the kids after the Montreal Canadiens beat any American team.

The best advice I’ve never taken is keep your left arm straight when hitting a golf ball.