25 years ago today

Brian Mulroney was elected leader of the Tories, forever changing politics in Canada

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Twenty-five years ago today, the Progressive Conservative Party elected Brian Mulroney as its leader at the Civic Centre in Ottawa.

From the moment he defeated Joe Clark on the fourth ballot, he was never in any doubt about his role. First, to unite the party, and then to get it elected. He succeeded impressively in both.

Neither was a given. The Tory party was constantly divided against itself, marginalized by the narrowness of its base, and relegated to near perpetual opposition status. Within a year of winning the leadership, Mulroney brought warring caucus factions together, and moved the party to the centre, to the cities and to Quebec, where elections are won in this country.

A party of the far right, of rural Canada, of English Canada, became a part of the dynamic centre, of urban Canada, and French Canada. He transformed a bunch of losers, as he boldly put it in his speech at the 1983 convention, into a party of winners.

This was no small accomplishment. The Liberals were a party of dynastic pretensions, having been in office for 20 of the previous 21 years at the 1984 election, and for 42 of the previous 49 years.

Just defeating the Liberals, as he did in the 1984 landslide, constitutes a major part of Mulroney's legacy. Democracy was served by alternation. Leading a united, moderate party as a favourite son of Quebec, Mulroney was then able to make the case for competence and finally transform the campaign into a change election.

Winning a second consecutive majority, in the free-trade election of 1988, secured Mulroney' s place as a significant prime minister, who could not be written off as a one-term wonder.

I covered the 1984 election from the press section at the back of the plane, and participated in the 1988 campaign from the staff section at the front. The perspectives were very different, but the outcome in both elections was due entirely to his gifts as a campaigner.

As to what he did with his time in office, Mulroney regarded political capital as something to be spent, not hoarded, and there's no doubt that he spent all of it, and then some. By the time he left office, he was the least popular prime minister of modern times. The country was glad to see the back of him.

Historians, in the fullness of time, might have another view. The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and, later, the NAFTA, were the most transformational economic events of the 20th century. Canada's exports to the U.S., as a share of GDP, doubled to 20 per cent. In dollar terms, exports to the U.S. have more than tripled. In 2000, Liberal trade minister Pierre Pettigrew declared that 80 per cent of new jobs in the previous seven years were created by exports, and 85 per cent of those were to the United States.

Mulroney has often said that free trade cannot be viewed alone, but as part of a larger policy framework that included deregulation, privatization, and the GST, which created a huge competitive advantage for exporters, since it replaced the buried 13.5-per-cent manufacturers' sales tax, and came off at the border. The management of fiscal frameworks would rate as a major disappointment - although he got government spending into an operating surplus, he ran deficits every year in office and the national debt doubled on his watch. It was the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who finally balanced the nation's books in 1997, and they deserve full credit for the virtuous cycle we enjoy to this day.

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 clearly ranks as Mulroney's greatest disappointment. And by his own admission, his biggest mistake in office was not referring it to the Supreme Court. To the question of whether the distinct society conferred special status on Quebec, the chief justice of the day, Brian Dickson, later said the court had no problem with it. Had that been the court's answer to such a question, neither Pierre Trudeau, nor Clyde Wells, nor anyone else could have said another word about it.

Federal-provincial relations and the management of the federation is one of two top files on any PM's desk, the other being foreign affairs, particularly Canada-U.S. relations. The Mulroney-Reagan/Bush years were clearly a golden era of Canada-U.S. relations, marked by free trade and the acid-rain accord of 1991. But Canada also said no to Star Wars, favoured economic sanctions against apartheid in South Africa when the U.S. opposed them, and differed from the U.S. on supporting right- wing insurgencies in Central America. Along the way, Canada played a critical role in the founding of la Francophonie in 1986, and finally took its seat at the Organization of American States in 1989.

These are all significant policy achievements. But at a time in his life when Mulroney, at 69, should be savouring these things, he also bears the self-inflicted wound of the cash retainer he accepted from Karlheinz Schreiber on leaving office, clearly the worst mistake of his life and the most expensive money he ever made. How it rates it the larger scheme of things is for future biographers to decide.

As the author of the first Mulroney biography, I can say the story that began a quarter century ago was a lot of fun to write. Writing speeches for him, as I later did, wasn't always fun. But it was a great honour to have such a privileged view of history in the making.

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