COLUMN

Advice for an unpopular prime minister

Mulroney should relax, roll up his sleeves, undo his tie and show us the genuine article. He has nothing to be ashamed of.

DIANE FRANCIS August 5 1991
COLUMN

Advice for an unpopular prime minister

Mulroney should relax, roll up his sleeves, undo his tie and show us the genuine article. He has nothing to be ashamed of.

DIANE FRANCIS August 5 1991

Advice for an unpopular prime minister

COLUMN

Mulroney should relax, roll up his sleeves, undo his tie and show us the genuine article. He has nothing to be ashamed of.

DIANE FRANCIS

Soldiers in combat gear scoured the hills surrounding the scenic, medieval Irish village of Carlingford when Brian Mulroney and Ireland’s prime minister, Charles Haughey, arrived. The village, near the border between the two Irelands, was heavily fortified that day, July 12, because it marked the 301st anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, a day when Orange Day parades sometimes spark violence. Army roadblocks pulled aside motorists for searches and a British gunboat plied the tiny port. Both prime ministers were there to eulogize Irish-Canadian martyr and member of Parliament Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who was bom in Carlingford in 1825 and assassinated in Ottawa in 1868 by a member of the Fenians, an Irish nationalist group that wanted to overthrow the Canadian government. The symbolism was obvious. A few kilometres from McGee’s shrine, latterday Irish fanatics, the IRA, blew to bits 18 British soldiers in August, 1979.

Mulroney’s visit to Ireland and his performance at the G-7 summit in London the following week were eye-openers. Thought of by many as furtive or phoney, Mulroney was the exact opposite abroad. It took guts to go to Carlingford. And in London later that week, it became obvious that Mulroney had rightly earned the respect of the world’s most important leaders. That’s why it was interesting that as Irish crowds and world leaders warmly greeted our Prime Minister, Canadian public opinion polls rejected him out of hand.

But rejection out of hand is unfair. I happen to think that Brian Mulroney has been a good prime minister. He’s an astute international player and has taken tough positions on economic policies such as free trade, tax reforms such as the GST and on spending controls. I also happen to think that his Meech Lake agreement was a good deal, and that it was not his fault that it failed.

So what, you may rightfully ask, is his problem?

He’s partially a victim of the times. Whether

it’s at Dan Quayle or Helmut Kohl these days, democracies lash out and leaders are handy whipping boys. But Ireland unlocked more: Mulroney wears a mask in public and this damages him. Privately, he is fun-loving, warm and humorous. His life has been exemplary: he’s disciplined, hardworking and a good husband and father. Publicly, he is stiff and ill at ease. This was noticeable during tiresome photo opportunities in Ireland, designed to keep television happy by giving networks plenty of footage. On one occasion, the Mulroneys and two Irish dignitaries walked through drizzle in a park, then chatted indoors. The foursome tried to appear nonchalant even though they were only a few feet from a wall of cameras and lights on tripods.

Behind this wall were mostly print journalists, silent as sentries and often grumpy at the time allotted to these mindless TV photo ops. During the 15-minute session, Mulroney’s hands betrayed his discomfort. They would have been happier shoved in his pockets, but they searched nervously for a more primeministerial position. The three others ignored the cameras, but Mulroney glanced at the sea of journalists for a friendly face, then joked around. This is a very nice person, I say to

myself, who hates this. When I share this with a colleague, he cracks cynically: “He loves every minute of it.”

Unconvinced, I felt Ireland was revealing. Here he was on a journey to his roots and yet his personality was distinctly un-Irish. In Ireland, conversation, blarney, sentimentality and anger flow as readily as Guinness, and yet our so-called Irish Prime Minister was as WASP as old Westmount. There were lapses, such as his touching speech in Dublin Castle when he talked about his Irish mother singing folk songs from a country she’d never seen. But around the media he was guarded and on his best behavior, reinforcing a view that he is somehow hiding something. Similarly, he controlled his temper, as well as his inclination to exaggerate or sentimentalize in public, but this may have translated into a form of dishonesty. In the end, the public does not see a successful guy from Baie-Comeau with a winning personality. Instead, it sees a guy from Baie-Comeau trying to be as patrician and correct and confident as Pierre Elliott Trudeau—and simply not pulling it off.

The paradox is that Mulroney, with as much as Trudeau to crow about, crows less. He’s not comfortable enough to allow a camera to capture his hair tousled. He never clowns around or strips off and dives into a swimming pool. He wouldn’t dream of sliding down the Queen’s banister, giving opponents the finger on television, losing his temper in public, scolding mediocre media or wearing a cape.

Trudeau had style as well as substance because he had the courage to be himself on any occasion. Mulroney, possessing substance but little style, is distrusted because he masks his real, Irish, working-class roots due to insecurity or shyness. This leads him to worry too much about the media. Insiders say that he explodes in private about unfair coverage when he should either ignore or publicly blast cheap shots. Instead, he asks aides to issue corrective news releases that usually make matters worse.

Some argue that it may be too late for Brian Mulroney. But his rivals may self-destruct, and he also has the best chance of working out matters with Quebec, which will be the paramount issue in the next federal election. No matter what happens, Mulroney should relax, roll up his sleeves, undo his tie and show us the genuine article. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He must show Canadians that he has the courage of his convictions, whether it’s going to Carlingford or making tough decisions such as free trade, the GST or Gulf War participation.

He should avoid fiascoes like the all-star game, when his handlers were so concerned he and George Bush would be booed that they asked baseball officials to refrain from announcing their presence. Such actions reinforce the belief that Mulroney is a phoney, and that anything he does is simply another cynical bid for popularity. That’s a bum rap, but only the real Brian Mulroney can convince Canadians of that. If his blarney gets him in hot water, he should admit that. Right or wrong, he should come out slugging and let the punches fall where they might. They will anyway.