The healing begins

The Montreal celebrations didn't mend all the rifts between the Mulroney and Harper factions, but they were a good start

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The Gazette, Sunday, September 20, 2009

The prime minister's switchboard was on the line, asking if Brian Mulroney would take a call from Stephen Harper.

Harper, in New York for a speech, was calling Mulroney's hotel suite, about 45 minutes before the big event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Conservative landslide in the 1984 federal election.

About 1,600 people paid $100 a head for the cocktail at the Sheraton, with net proceeds to Montreal's two children's hospitals. One of the $100 cheques was from Stephen and Laureen Harper, who was attending along with 20 ministers of the present government and 30 from the Mulroney era.

Harper congratulated Mulroney on the anniversary. Mulroney commended Harper on his trip to Washington, and for visiting the congressional leadership of both American parties, as well as the White House.

The conversation, brief but cordial, was the first time the present and former Conservative prime ministers had spoken in the nearly two years since Harper had declared Mulroney off limits pending an inquiry into his business dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.

Two years on, the Oliphant Commission having completed its work - it is to report by year's end - Mulroney's 25th anniversary gala seemed a good opportunity for a healing of a rift that has caused division and consternation in the Conservative family.

Not only did Harper reach out to Mulroney with a phone call, he pointedly referred to the event in his New York speech: "Tonight in Montreal we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Mulroney government, the Conservative government that initiated the first modern comprehensive trade agreement between our two countries."

Then in a video he sent to the Montreal event, Harper was generous and gracious in his comments on Mulroney's legacy. Mulroney, in turn, offered a warm introduction of Laureen Harper. While it did not pass unnoticed that Mulroney neglected to mention Harper in his speech, he pointedly asked for a warm Montreal welcome for Laureen, who was clearly very happy to be there.

All in all, it was enough for Conservative Party luminaries such as Transport Minister John Baird to declare that they were all one big happy family again.

Well, maybe not all the way there, but it was a good step along the way.

Indeed, it was Baird who started up an ovation when Brian and Mila Mulroney walked into an after-event across the street at Decca 77.

Someone got the idea of putting the Harper and Mulroney cabinets together, along with Jean Charest's, and many of their senior advisers. As power cocktails go, this one was unique.

From the present cabinet, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Environment Minister Jim Prentice flew in directly from accompanying Harper to Washington. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement were there, along with Baird and 15 other federal ministers. For once, the gridlock of black limos wasn't for a concert next door at the Bell Centre.

From Mulroney's cabinet, Bill McKnight and Don Mazankowski, still inseparable after all these years, sat down together for the hot buffet.

And Jean Charest, co-chair of the evening with Michael Wilson, brought most of his cabinet, including Finance Minister Raymond Bachand.

This is how Flaherty bumped into Bachand, standing in the buffet line with their wives.

"Hey, comment ça va?" Flaherty said.

This is not necessarily how the federal and provincial finance ministers always greet each other.

Bachand was off to Quebec the next morning for the special one-day sitting of the legislature to adopt a balanced budget bill, to take effect once the province returns to a surplus from the present Keynesian moment of prime-pump deficit spending.

Flaherty could only envy Bachand's prospects, though the U.S. experience of balanced-budget amendments in the states hasn't been very successful of late.

Bachand was there, not because his boss was, but, as he said, for a friendship with Mulroney that was formed all those years ago, when the future finance minister of Quebec's federalist party was a young firebrand in René Lévesque's Mouvement Souverainte-Association, forerunner of the Parti Québécois.

"We used to go lunch and argue all the time when I was in the MSA," Bachand recalled. "It was a lot of fun."

"Yeah," Mulroney recalled, "I used to tell him he had all the makings of a good federalist, and 40 years later, here we are."

This is how things are in the village of the Quebec political class. Everyone is connected to everyone. It was just such a network that led to an historic landslide, a quarter century ago, when a young Jean Charest, then just 26, was first elected to parliament.

"Excuse me," said the premier, who was leaving early. "I gotta go run Quebec."

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