Even before he became leader of the country, Brian Mulroney used to tell friends that he wanted to “live in history.” Mulroney
wanted to be remembered not just as a prime minister—but as the Prime Minister who brought Quebec into the Constitution. The fulfilment of that dream moved a giant step closer last week when Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa signed a constitutional accord after 19 V2 hours of intense negotiations. The other nine premiers who helped to forge the agreement lavished praise on Mulroney. But some politicians and constitutional scholars were highly critical, saying that Mulroney paid too high a price to reach his goal. Said Robert Jackson, a political scientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University: “He has definitely got himself a place in history, but where is the place?” Hailed: Answers to that question varied as widely as reaction to the accord itself. Supporters hailed Mulroney as a new Father of Confederation. His critics said that he has given the provinces powers that will prevent Ottawa from effectively governing the country. The public, according to a poll conducted for Maclean's last week, was evenly divided. Forty-three per cent approved of the Prime Minister’s performance on the issue, while 40 per cent expressed disapproval.
Mulroney entered the constitutional talks badly needing a victory. Since becoming Prime Minister in 1984, his public image has often been that of an insincere politician leading a scandalprone government. Mulroney needed to change that perception in order to improve his party’s popularity before the next election—and even some of his critics acknowledged that the Meech Lake accord may well help. Jean-Luc Pepin, a former Liberal cabinet minister who was co-chairman of the 1977 to 1979 Task Force on Canadian Unity, offered support for the accord and called the Prime Minister “a shrewd and intelligent packager.” Added Pepin: “He massaged this thing the best he could and put the thing together.” Mulroney’s political fortunes could also be helped because of the problems that the constitutional arrangement created for the leaders of the two opposition parties. Both the Liberals’
John Turner and the New Democrats’ Ed Broadbent endorsed the new deal, although both called for some changes. However, their parties are divided, largely along linguistic lines, over Meech Lake. About 10 of the 40 Liberal MPs have expressed serious reservations or outright opposition to the accord. Turner referred to those divisions during a nationally televised speech on Thursday night, saying, “I will quite frankly admit that the past month has been a difficult one, both for me and for my party.”
Broadbent’s problems rest largely with his Quebec wing. The party’s Quebec leader, Jean-Paul Harney, has voiced strong opposition to the package. Greg Pyrcz, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., said that the two opposition leaders, sensing the public is “exhausted” with constitutional wars, have deliberately avoided confronting Mulroney on the subject. They probably believed, Pyrcz said, that the more conflict they generated on the issue, “the more likely they would hurt in the polls.”
Starred: Mulroney’s friends denied criticism last week that the Prime Minister’s drive for a deal was based largely on his determination to increase the Tories’ standing in Quebec. Conservative Senator Jean Bazin, for one, noted that Mulroney has followed constitutional issues closely since university days. While students at Laval University in Quebec City, Bazin and Mulroney helped organize the 1961 Congress of Canadian Affairs. The four-day event starred such leading Quebec political figures as René Lévesque and Jean Lesage, and was regarded as an important milestone in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
Still, there was little doubt that the accord will help the Conservatives’ popularity in Quebec. Senator Lowell Murray, the federal-provincial relations minister, said in an interview that the Conservative party “has been waiting for an achievement like this since the day Louis Riel was hanged.” Added Murray: “It doesn’t stop here. My guess is that by the end of this calendar year, all of our major initiatives will start coming up right for us and will the polls.”
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