BUSINESS WATCH

How Brian Mulroney planned his exit

By leaving when he did, he tried to take the poison out of the system. He deliberately focused most of the bad news on himself.

Peter C. Newman March 15 1993
BUSINESS WATCH

How Brian Mulroney planned his exit

By leaving when he did, he tried to take the poison out of the system. He deliberately focused most of the bad news on himself.

Peter C. Newman March 15 1993

How Brian Mulroney planned his exit

BUSINESS WATCH

By leaving when he did, he tried to take the poison out of the system. He deliberately focused most of the bad news on himself.

PETER C. NEWMAN

The day after he announced his resignation, Brian Mulroney found himself on CNN with one of those male Ted Turner robots with a low hairline, a deep voice and nothing much in between. “Rumors have reached us,” intoned the interviewer, “that when you retire, you’ve been offered a job doing American Express commercials on TV. How do you react to that?” Without missing a beat, Mulroney held up his right hand as if it had a credit card in it, looked straight into the camera lens and advised, “Don’t leave home without it!”

It was a small moment in a momentous week, but the ease of Mulroney’s manner and his ability to turn an insult into a joke was typical of the grace of his exit. He left office in such good humor, because, even if he has become the most controversial PM of this century, he knows it was because he so seldom backed off from choosing the politically risky options. Whether it was free trade with the United States or adoption of the hated GST, he remains convinced there were no functional alternatives to what had to be done.

Though the date of his leave-taking was postponed four times, his plan to hand over the country’s top political job at a PC leadership convention on the weekend of June 11 gives his party the best possible chance to renew its mandate. Unlike Pierre Trudeau, who left the Liberals bereft of funds or organization after his walk in the February, 1984, snow, Mulroney bequeaths the Progressive Conservatives a bulging war chest. The PC party organization has no outstanding debt and finished last year $2.3 million in the black, not including $4 million in cash reserves and a $10-million bank credit line—more than enough to wage the next campaign.

Mulroney came to office nine years ago at age 45, younger than Bill Clinton is now, and has since spent his energies in a sequence of contentious causes, literally reinventing Canada in the process. Whatever history’s verdict on the Mulroney legislative record

turns out to be, there will be little doubt about his loyalty to the Conservative cause. The young Mulroney—who matured politically during the Diefenbaker years, when the party’s attempts to destroy its leader became the country’s leading blood sport—determined early on that he would never become the object of such a process. Unlike some of his predecessors, he does not view leadership of the Conservative party as a proprietary position and has always believed the party can grow only if it is periodically re-energized by new leadership.

In a paradoxical way, Mulroney’s planning for his departure flowed from his unpopularity, which saw his personal approval rating scraping the middle teens. By leaving when he did, he tried to take the poison out of the system with him. Over the past two years, ever since he made his private decision not to try for a third term, he has deliberately attempted to focus most of the bad news and government criticism on himself.

It had been Mulroney’s original intention to leave office in the fall of 1990, right after the expected approval of the Meech Lake accord. That, of course, didn’t happen, and his plans changed when his friend Lowell

Murray, the senator who had headed the federal negotiating team during Meech, warned that, if he went, so many Quebec Tory MPs might defect that “the disintegration of the government was not weeks, but could be hours away.”

There followed the Oka crisis, the Gulf War, the stormy passage of the GST legislation through the Senate, the beginning of the recession and the establishment of the Bélanger-Campeau commission in Quebec, which recommended an almost immediate referendum on sovereignty. Having survived this succession of crises, the Tory leader became determined to be gone by the fall of 1992. That exit scheme was voided by the referendum that followed the unexpected agreement on the Charlottetown accord— and Dec. 31 then became Mulroney’s operative departure date.

Two factors intervened. The Prime Minister realized that he couldn’t respond to Clinton’s invitation to be the first visiting foreign head of government at the new White House and arrive as a lame duck. Even more important, was the sad news about Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s deteriorating health, which caused Mulroney both to grieve for his friend and postpone his resignation one last time. But, by the end of January and early February, everything else seemed to fall into place. And there was an unexpected bonus. Clyde Wells, the Newfoundland premier who remains Mulroney’s nemesis, wrote a personal letter praising the PM’s initiatives. “I am not aware of any Prime Minister in the 43 years that Newfoundland has been a province of Canada who has given a stronger commitment to the economic needs of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Wells wrote. “For that, I express to you my personal appreciation.”

Best of all, on Jan. 28, at the University of Ottawa, Jean Chrétien delivered the first of two major policy addresses, outlining the platform that Mulroney felt locked him into the Liberal leadership for the next election. The Tory strategists’ greatest fear had been that a Mulroney departure might prompt the Liberal caucus to dump their ineffectual leader.

Whatever else happened, Mulroney was determined through the departure process to hand over to his successor a functioning party that will at least have a shot at maintaining its lease on 24 Sussex Drive, as opposed to the Conservative leaders’ more habitual roost at Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s less prestigious residence.

Despite his many accomplishments, Brian Mulroney leaves office bereft of the credit he deserves. Part of the problem was the man— he tried too hard to ingratiate himself with a country that had turned its back on all political leaders. Canadians had become determined not only to usurp the status quo, but to exact revenge on those they perceived to be its agents.

As the British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell once wisely observed, “Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.”