BRIAN MULRONEY CALLS ON AN OLD RIVAL TO HELP HIM UNITE THE NATION AND REVIVE HIS PARTY’S FORTUNES
E. KAYE FULTONApril291991
THE ODD COUPLE
BRIAN MULRONEY CALLS ON AN OLD RIVAL TO HELP HIM UNITE THE NATION AND REVIVE HIS PARTY’S FORTUNES
For the second time in a long and often strained political relationship, the critical issue was a job for Joe Clark. The first occasion was during an August, 1983, meeting in a small apartment on Abercrombie Street in New Glasgow, N.S. Clark, the former prime minister, told Brian Mulroney, the man who had just replaced him as head of the Progressive Conservative party, that the only portfolio he would accept in any future Mulroney cabinet was that of External Affairs. Mulroney, who was seeking his first seat in the House of Commons from the safe Tory riding of Central Nova, was acutely aware of his predecessor’s importance to Conservative fortunes. He agreed not only to Clark’s demand for the plum cabinet post, but also accepted Clark’s condition that he not be transferred to another assignment against his wishes. Last week, it was Mulroney’s turn to exert pressure. During a private luncheon meeting at the Prime Minister’s official summer residence at Harrington Lake, Mulroney told his former rival that his skills were needed on the domestic front—as minister of federal-provincial relations. The following evening, Clark telephoned Mulroney to accept the job.
That decision gave an embattled Mulroney the centrepiece he had sought for the most ambitious shuffle of his cabinet since the Conservative party came to power in 1984. By the end of the week, Mulroney had settled on a realignment of his front bench, which he was to unveil at a swearing-in ceremony on Sunday afternoon just before departing on a scheduled three-day speaking blitz of Western Canada to promote unity. Many analysts predicted further changes, possibly as early as next fall. Still, Tory strategists plainly held fervent hopes that the new-look cabinet would become the basis for a reversal in their party’s—and the country’s—slide in fortunes in the months remain-
ing before disgruntled voters choose their own course in a general election that must be called by November, 1993.
Not all insiders were confident that Mulroney’s cabinet changes would solve either his party’s political malaise or the country’s divisions. According to those who know him well, Clark, for one, had deep reservations about undertaking his new assignment. And University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss questioned whether there was any combination of ministers that Mulroney could have chosen which would satisfy voters. Noted Bliss: “To restore trust when people don’t trust the Prime Minister is very difficult.” He added: “Canadians feel that it’s not the deck that needs to be shuffled, it’s the dealer.”
Still, rumors of an impending shuffle all but paralysed other government business in Ottawa last week. Speculation did not cease even when Mulroney rushed early in the week to the
bedside of his 78-year-old mother, Irene, who underwent emergency heart surgery in Palm Beach, Fla. Mulroney was later joined by his wife, Mila. The Mulroneys returned to Ottawa on Thursday evening, and the final arrangements were quickly made for a weekend shuffle.
According to one Tory senator, Mulroney had braced his caucus as much as three weeks earlier to expect an overhaul of the government. At the time, he had warned that “changes had to be made and they had to be big,” the senator recalled. And clearly, Mulroney was propelled by a need to introduce new faces to a perceptibly tiring cabinet, whose key members have changed little during his two mandates. Two of Mulroney’s most important ministers—Clark and Finance Minister Michael Wilson—had held their portfolios since 1984, while others, including International Trade Minister John Crosbie and Public Works
Minister Elmer MacKay, were openly toying with retirement.
Advisers had also urged Mulroney to shake up his senior Quebec ranks before he embarked on the difficult negotiations to try to keep Quebec within Confederation. Among those expected to benefit from the shuffle were Youth and Sports Minister Marcel Danis, a Montreal-area MP, and Sherbrooke, Que., MP Jean Charest, who resigned from the cabinet in 1990 after attempting to talk to a Montreal judge about an active court case. After acting as chairman of a constitutional task force that
made a last-ditch attempt last spring to salvage the doomed Meech Lake accord, Charest has spent the past year travelling the country speaking on national unity. He is now seen as a credible defender of federalism in Quebec, and many observers said that his return to cabinet would compensate for any decision by Mulroney to diminish the influence of Communications Minister Marcel Masse and Labor Minister Jean Corbeil.
As well, Mulroney was keenly aware that Tory supporters in Western Canada have been defecting to the Alberta-based Reform party. In order to stanch that flow, aides urged him to raise the domestic profile of three of the government’s most powerful Alberta ministers: Clark, House Leader Harvie Andre and Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski. Mazankowski, in particular, has worked reliably in relative obscurity as Mulroney’s second-in-command, and in the run-up to the shuffle many analysts anticipated that he would receive the critical finance portfolio (page 16). Said historian David Bercuson, dean of gradu-
ate studies at the University of Calgary: “The impact of important ministers like Clark and Mazankowski as tangible powers could send an important signal to the west.”
But it was plainly Clark’s assignment to the critical national-unity dossier that would represent the cornerstone of the new cabinet. No task facing the government is more pressing than the threatened departure of Quebec from the Canadian federal family. And in a climate of undiminished rancor and inflamed emotion both within that province and in the rest of Canada, no mission is less certain of success.
Indeed, it was a mission that Clark did not immediately embrace. Before accepting the federal-provincial relations portfolio, the 51-year-old political veteran mused long and hard—and publicly on at least two occasions— about the likelihood that he would find himself on a collision course, both with his boss and with an impatient public disenchanted with constitutional ditherings. In fact, senior aides said that Clark accepted the job only after extracting assurances from Mulroney of vastly greater authority than his predecessor, Senator Lowell Murray, wielded. And even after his lunch with the Prime Minister, Clark worried aloud that he and Mulroney held incompatible approaches to constitutional reform. Advisers also said that Clark was not pleased at the prospect of losing the relative autonomy that he had come to enjoy during his 6V2-year tenure at External Affairs. Said one adviser: “Joe realizes he will have to work much closer with Mulroney than in the past and, frankly, that scares him.”
In fact, both men are likely to hares bor reservations about the shift. Mulroney, for his part, is turning to a onceï bitter foe whose personal popularity u far exceeds his own. In doing so, Mul5 roney has also placed the most crucial task facing his government—one that he kept under his own tight control until now—into the hands of a subordinate increasingly willing to express his own opinions, even when they differ from those of his boss. The result could well be a prescription for frequent clashes of personalities, visions and egos. And while public confidence in Clark may benefit the Tory strategy for reconciling Quebec with the rest of the country, noted University of Toronto political scientist John Kirton, “There is no way the Prime Minister can delegate national unity.” Meanwhile, Clark’s assignment to a portfolio so central to Mulroney’s own preoccupations is fraught with ironies that have resonated through the Conservative party for 15 years, both in and out of power. After Clark, then a little-known, two-term MP, scooted past Mulroney and nine other candidates to win the Tory leadership in 1976, Mulroney was openly antagonistic. Retreating to his Montreal law practice and then business, Mulroney became a leading architect of a quiet, seven-year campaign to unseat Clark that finally ended with his
own leadership victory in 1983. Often disdainful of his rival, Mulroney ridiculed Clark’s notion of decentralizing federal powers, and once accused him of “playing footsie” with Quebec separatists—until adopting both approaches himself. During Clark’s first years at External Affairs, Mulroney at times appeared to deliberately embarrass him. After Clark criticized a U.S. embargo on trade with Sandinista-led Nicaragua in May, 1985, Mulroney— with Clark at his side—told reporters he was “not at all displeased” by the action.
Acquaintances of the two men say that thenlong-standing frostiness has melted into an amiable working relationship—at least in public. The two still have differences of views. Clark privately expresses his wariness of Mulroney’s apparent fascination for ever-closer ties to the United States. Mulroney was more hawkish than Clark during the Gulf War and has exhibited a pro-Israeli tilt, which is the opposite of Clark’s evident sympathy for the Palestinians living under that country’s rule.
But aides note that the two share some similar negotiating styles. “Foreign policy to Clark was not so much the grand gesture as it was a network of continuing conversations,” said Jodi White, Clark’s former longtime chief of staff. For his part, Mulroney is addicted to telephone chats with his own wide circle of political acquaintances. In international affairs, said White, “the Prime Minister came to see that Joe had the contacts.”
And despite the risk of clashing personalities, many Tories approved of Mulroney’s gamble in transferring Clark to the high-profile domestic front. But in fact, Mulroney’s choice of ministers capable of handling the vital national unity issue was extremely limited. In addition to wide public confidence, the role
called for a secure stature in Quebec. The bilingual Clark once commanded considerable respect there. And he is plainly the Tory veteran best equipped to apply the skills of diplomatic brokerage to the country’s undeclared civil war.
But whether those skills will suffice is far from certain. Profound public disillusionment with politicians in general, coupled with Quebec’s hard-line demands for sweeping autonomy, have left Mulroney little room to manoeuvre—and even less time to act. “It really doesn’t matter who Mulroney’s cabinet minis-
ters are,” said Lome Bozinoff, vice-president of Gallup Canada Inc. “People don’t care any more—they just want results.”
On the international stage, Clark has given the Conservatives just that. Although Mulroney clearly dictates the direction of Canada’s foreign policy, Clark has unquestionably left his mark. His admirers note that he deliberately steered Canada into the appropriate role of a middle power by emphasizing initiatives in the Third World and other areas where the country’s modest diplomatic clout could make a discernible difference. Under Clark’s guidance, Canada cemented a course independent of the Americans with its membership in the Organization of American States, and ensured an influence in the postwar Middle East by deftly maintaining the friendship of Jordan’s King Hussein. But critics countered that Clark’s dogged pursuit of a meaningful role for Canada in such trouble spots as South and Central America served to distract both himself and his prime minister from the full implications of such historic events as the democratic upheaval in the Soviet Union.
That country now stands on the brink of disintegration. So too, according to some analysts, does Canada. If disintegration is to be avoided in Canada, Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark will have to set aside their career-long rivalry and collaborate more closely than ever before, for the future of their party—and their country.
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