BUSINESS WATCH

A study in contrasts between two at the top

Mulroney’s strong stands on South Africa and against Star Wars made him a world figure with more respect than Trudeau ever had

Peter C. Newman December 26 1988
BUSINESS WATCH

A study in contrasts between two at the top

Mulroney’s strong stands on South Africa and against Star Wars made him a world figure with more respect than Trudeau ever had

Peter C. Newman December 26 1988

A study in contrasts between two at the top

BUSINESS WATCH

Mulroney’s strong stands on South Africa and against Star Wars made him a world figure with more respect than Trudeau ever had

PETER C. NEWMAN

Because prime ministers are inevitably judged against their predecessors, 1988’s main political legacy has to be a fundamental reassessment of Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau. Prevailing wisdom has pictured Trudeau as a political wizard, a remarkable once-in-a-lifetime prime minister whose dazzling intellect and daring initiatives altered the Canadian mindscape forever. In contrast, because of Mulroney’s push-button smile and the ham-actor resonance of his voice, his style has been mistaken for substance. Those who follow his career have interpreted his blips of ideology as misguided opportunism. He is still seen as merely the graduate labor lawyer negotiating to reopen the struck factory, no matter what the future cost.

Those stereotypes have developed partly as a result of the differing folk memories of the two political parties. Because the Liberals have enjoyed prime ministerial office most of this century, they have been considered its rightful occupants, to be displaced only temporarily by Tories who occasionally slip into power, like thieves in the night. The Conservatives, by contrast, have traditionally been dismissed as the dermatologists of Canadian politics: they never solve anybody’s problems but they always travel first class.

Nov. 21 changed all that. For better or for worse, Brian Mulroney’s victory has imposed a new reality on Canada. The Free Trade Agreement will redefine this country, reorienting its axis from the hard-won east-west alignment to an omnipresent north-south direction. It will force Canadian business to raise its productivity dramatically and to revolutionize its marketing ethics. Apart from that major commercial initiative—which will have consequences far more dramatic than anything Trudeau dared to try during his 16 years in office—Mulroney has enacted dozens of other major pieces of legislation and transformed the size and basis of Conservative support.

One reason for his success is the recognition among his followers that Mulroney really is a

Progressive and a Conservative—true to both parts of that contradictory party label. He came to political maturity in Quebec at a time when being a Tory in French Canada was about as significant as (and much less fun than) being a Rhino. Although he was offered at least one chance to switch parties and join the Liberal cabinet in Ottawa, he stayed loyal and led the PCs to two unprecedented sweeps of Quebec, taking his party from one seat in 1980 to 58 in 1984, and adding even more four years later.

In the 1984 campaign, instead of accepting one of the many safer seats offered him, Mulroney took on the Manicouagan riding, at that time held by a Liberal with a 16,000-vote majority. Mulroney’s Quebec support will eventually soften but, for the moment, he has drastically altered the calculus of Canadian politics. To be a Liberal cabinet minister from Quebec once amounted to the Canadian equivalent of a lifetime peerage. No more.

When he was first elected, Mulroney had a tough time learning on the job. But, under his prodding, the government enacted an impressive 232 pieces of legislation in its first four years. Our economy grew faster than that of any other industrialized country for all but one year of his stewardship, and unemployment

plunged. His strong stands on South Africa and against Star Wars, and his leadership at the various summits he chaired and attended, made him an international figure with more support and respect than Trudeau ever had. Robert Stanfield got it right when, at an electional rally at Yarmouth, N.S., just 36 hours before voting day, he said: “Warts and all, Brian Mulroney has earned a proud place in Canadian history. He has made the Progressive Conservatives a great national movement and put the PCs in a position where we can now perform the services to the nation that the Liberal party, in the days of its greatness under King and St. Laurent, was able to perform.”

Under Trudeau, the Liberals turned away from their roots, partly because Trudeau had not grown up under its ideological disciplines. An itinerant NDPer, Trudeau had condemned the Liberals as “the garbage pail of Canadian politics,” but he switched anyway—then chose to run in Mount Royal, the safest Liberal seat in Quebec. Unlike Mulroney, who had to fight two leadership conventions and an election to become PM, Trudeau inherited Lester Pearson’s mantle. The election that followed was a charismatic rampage fuelled by Trudeaumania. But even though he was running against Stanfield (whose idea of animated behavior was to raise an eyebrow), Trudeau won only 155 ridings— 56 seats fewer than Mulroney in his first try. Four years later, Trudeau came within two seats of losing to Stanfield, while Mulroney’s second run resulted in 61 more seats than Trudeau was able to get in his.

Although Mulroney has turned out to be the more successful politician, Trudeau had his charms, not the least of them the delicious wickedness many Canadians felt because they had dared to elect such a fabulous smart-ass as prime minister. No other country could boast of a leader who slid down a banister at summit meetings, yelled “Mangez la merde!" at striking mail truck drivers, who could skin dive, high dive, ride a unicycle, earn a brown belt in judo and be voted “the world’s seventh-sexiest man” by London’s Daily Sketch.

But although Trudeau promulgated the Jesuit principle that he wanted other people to find their own way to his beliefs, he gradually became less interested in social change than in continuity, and much more committed to constitutional niceties than to fundamental reforms. His most impressive achievements— winning the Quebec referendum for the federal option and patriation of the Constitution— were not realized until his 12th and 14th years in office. During the first four years—the equivalent of Mulroney’s current stewardship—Trudeau did little except pass some important bilingual legislation, reduce our forces in NATO and enact the controversial War Measures Act in Quebec. In the end, he quit because he could no longer think of a good reason to stay.

It’s difficult to compare two such different politicians, and Brian Mulroney’s historical record is far from complete. But, so far, he has earned much higher political marks than his predecessor, and this year-end seems like an appropriate moment to give him due credit.