‘The Basics Are Right’
Q&A: BRIAN MULRONEY
The Prime Minister says that he expects to fight the next election—and win
In a year-end interview with Maclean’s, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, shaking off the effects of a month-long battle with the flu, was by turns subdued and animated, sounding at times as though he was already involved in the next campaign. In a 75-minute discussion with Editor Kevin Doyle and Ottawa Bureau Chief Anthony Wilson-Smith, he talked about his reactions to the conclusions reached by the Maclean’s Montebello forum, issues touched on in the Maclean’s /Decima poll, the deepening recession and personal attacks on his family. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: After a decade of conservative governments in North America and much of Western Europe, with business-supported agendas, the world is now in a deep recession. What went wrong?
Mulroney: Ten years ago, the prime rate was 17.25. Now it’s eight. Inflation was 12.2 per cent, and now it’s annualized at under two per cent. Unemployment was heading towards 12.8 per cent, and it's now at 10.3, which is relatively high.
We in Canada have had two quarters of growth. So I suppose, in a technical way, you could say we’re in a recovery stage. I think that there’s a general acknowledgment that among the miscalculations that have been made universally was the impact of the American [recession].
I don’t know of anyone who was saying at this time last year that the American economy would be in any shape other than a fairly buoyant one. In fact, that’s what pulled Canada out of the recession in 1982 and 1983. Two and a half million jobs in Canada depend on that American market, and 80 per cent of our exports go there. Obviously, that’s impacted a great deal. That’s the bad news.
The good news, of course, is we have a lot of the fundamentals right: interest rates, inflation. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said recently that we were going to lead the industrialized world in growth in 1992 and 1993 and that we’ll have the secondlowest inflation rate, second only to Japan. The dollar has started to come down a bit.
Our problem now is one of investor confidence. By ‘investor,’ I mean you and me, among others. Savings are almost at an all-time high in Canada. People are disinclined to make that purchase. They don’t see enough visible signs of recovery. With all the structural changes, they’re frightened and they don’t want to put out any money until they see what’s going on.
Maclean’s: Do you ever worry that your government has made such a holy grail out of deficit reduction that you ve really left yourself helpless to alleviate the problem?
Mulroney: No, because the catastrophe that was being visited upon us by the Liberals with their reckless spending can be summed up very quickly. Had we not come in in 1984 and done what we did, the deficit, which is going to be $30 billion this year, would have been $101 billion on revenues of $128 billion. That’s a situation where you’re gone. You don’t have a prime minister. You’ve got the managing director of the International Monetary Fund telling you what to do. You lose your sovereignty when you no longer have the economic strength for the national government to stand behind its decisions.
Maclean’s: What do you say to Canadians who expect the central government to undertake—and fund—programs to revive the economy and keep the country together?
Mulroney: Well, we can put together a new program—we have to go
and borrow to do it. Seven years ago, [the Liberal government of the day] was borrowing for their lunches. They couldn’t even run the operational side of the government of Canada in the black. They ran the operational side in the red. I understand the calamity that they visited on people. I understand that that’s the result of profligacy on an unprecedented scale. Canadians are going to have to make up their minds whether they want popularity or they want results. They want somebody popular, vote for somebody else. They want somebody who’s going to deal with the problems confronting them, they may want to consider us. They won’t ever be able to accuse me of not confronting the difficult problems. We’ve made all of the tough decisions and we’ve done our best. Maclean’s: In terms of the Constitution, a forum that we had earlier this month at Montebello and our year-end poll show a great deal of confusion about your new proposals. The forum members proposed dealing with the economy outside the Constitution and focusing on native self-government, the distinct society and Senate reform in the constitutional package. What is your reaction to that recommendation? Mulroney: The constitutional proposals have to try to address national problems, but also try to accommodate some legitimate concerns.
I think it is difficult to hive off two or three questions from a constitutional proposal and meet the requirements that are out there these days. Some people are saying that with our 28 proposals we’ve taken a double bite and it’s too much and that we should be more temperate or moderate. I suppose we’ll look at that and we’ll wait for the recommendations of the parliamentary committees and others. Maclean’s: On the issue of distinct society, the 12 forum members recommended adding a statement to the constitutional changes to say that ‘distinct society’ would not affect anyone outside Quebec, nor would it be limited to the traditional areas of a French-speaking majority, unique culture and civil law tradition. How do you feel about those changes? Mulroney: That’s part and parcel of the legal interpretation of the distinct society clause as contained in the Meech Lake accord. Moreover, the specificity to which you refer and the definition that is found in the [government’s] proposals—but was not so defined under Meech— by its very nature ties those provisions only to Quebec because they define a ‘distinct society’ as referring to a French-speaking majority, civil code and a unique culture and so on. I have no problem with that. Maclean’s: How did you feel personally when you decided to withdraw your name from those being considered for the next secretary general of the United Nations?
Mulroney: It came very quickly. I first heard about this on a Tuesday night. I instructed our ambassador to withdraw my name on a Thursday morning. So you’re really talking about a few days or something like that when this thing was floating around. I’m very interested in the United Nations and I’m a big supporter of the UN, and I can see the tremendous work that can and will be done there. So that was a very exciting idea, particularly when it became clear that the permanent members of the Security Council were very supportive. I was very grateful for them considering me, but I felt that my responsibility was here. But is the UN secretary general’s job a challenging and inspiring job? Yes, sir. Maclean’s: Should Quebec decide in a referendum or in some other way to separate, would you as a native Quebecer feel that you should step aside and let someone else argue the federal case? Mulroney: I don’t see anything quite that cataclysmic. Canadians are going to have to decide a very simple question: Do they want to keep this country, or do they not? If they want to keep it, they know what they have to do. If they want to lose it, they know what to do as well. So which tradition is going to prevail? Will it be the generous, openhearted, nation-building tradition that we’ve seen for 125 years, or will it be the meanspirited, negative, go-your-own-way voices that we’ve heard sporadically over the life of this nation? Can you take a slice out of the heart of a country and have the country function nicely with a slice of its heart gone?
Maclean’s: Are you saying that nobody should take for granted that this will happen without violence? Mulroney: I’m just saying that nobody should make any smug assumptions—that you can chop off a part of the country and the rest of the country is going to continue to function in a tidy, neat, effective way, because it may not. No one should assume anymore that the Yugoslavs or the Soviets or anybody else [are exceptions], that there’s something in the air we breathe that makes us immune from certain realities. Or that once the process begins, that it is going to be affectionate and tidy and warm and civilized. I hope it is. But I’m just saying no one should make that assumption. It’s wrong.
I hope that we will be able to so conduct ourselves that there will not be a referendum. I hope Canadians will have the intelligence and the maturity to step back from the abyss and reflect upon the magnificence of Canada and say, ‘Let us go again the route of honorable compromise.’ If we do, we can keep this country together. I hope there won’t be a referendum. I hope the Quebec government and the Quebec people will see in what we’re doing enough so that they will say, ‘Lookit. We’re making progress. Perhaps there’s another way to handle this.’ Hell, there are people in Quebec who still don’t talk to members of their own family as a result of the referendum [in 1980]. Maclean’s: Would you support a national referendum?
Mulroney: That’s a possibility. I have indicated before that the federal government hasn’t renounced any of its rights. We would want to be helpful in any consultation we did. Why would Canadians in one part of Canada have a right to speak out on a constitutional proposal and somebody else not? It doesn’t make any sense to me. I haven’t renounced, nor have I asked the Parliament of Canada to renounce, any of its rights to consult its own citizens.
Maclean’s: Have you decided definitely to run again in the next election ?
Mulroney: I make up my mind on these things at an appropriate time, and I always have. I would see an election probably some time in 1993—at least a year and a half away. A lot of water is going to flow under the bridge between now and then. My expectation is to lead the party into the next election and to form another majority government.
Maclean’s: You’ve had a lot of people taking shots at you and at your family. Do you ever feel like walking away from all that?
Mulroney: Well, as far as I’m concerned personally—
I thought I’d never be able to say it—but nothing bothers me anymore about myself. Nothing. I expect nothing from the media and that’s what I get. Nothing. So it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve actually become inured to it all. The one thing that you never become accustomed to are attacks on your family. [Editor’s note-. Ottawa-based Frank magazine, a gossip magazine directed at politicians and the media, made frequent references to Mulroney’s wife, Mila, and his daughter, Caroline.] These things involving my children last summer were contemptible and odious. You’ve got to have a sick mind living in a sewer to do things like that and to come up with things like that. It’s a disgrace to the profession of journalism that people are masquerading around this town as journalists when they’re not journalists at all. They’re fraud artists who are taking advantage of the profession to trade in calumny and smear. The only thing that bothers me is that kind of thing. I won’t try to hide that.
Maclean’s: What kind of relationship do you have with the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin?
Mulroney: We have a very good relationship, but he is a new fellow and he’s going to suffer like all new politicians. As soon as you come in, you engage in the battle of expectations. Nobody can deliver on the expectations because it’s not what you promised, it’s what they think you promised. He’s going to encounter it in one hell of a hurry.
Maclean’s: Your thoughts on Gorbachev? Mulroney: I liked Gorbachev a great deal as a person. I saw quite a lot of him. Mila and Raisa [Gorbachev] got to know each other as you do in these businesses. That last G-7 summit he attended in London was extraordinary. He went away from there and four weeks later
there was the coup. I can remember speaking to him when he called me right after the coup [failed], I suppose we all thought then that if he survived that, he could survive anything. It just didn't work out that way.
Maclean’s: Do you plan to see Yeltsin, or for that matter Gorbachev, in the near future? Mulroney: Yeltsin will be coming here next year. And I wrote to Mr. Gorbachev this morning. It had nothing to do with business. It was a long personal letter this morning. I’m going to be calling him [soon].
Maclean’s: What is the status of the CanadaU.S.-Mexico free trade talks?
Mulroney: They’re going along quite well. Maclean’s: Are they still a high priority for you?
Mulroney: They’re a higher priority for Mexico and the United States. They’re a priority for us because we have a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. The ingredients in that agreement are gold. Sure, we’ve had the Free Trade Agreement in rough times. You watch the Free Trade Agreement in good times when we get out of this recession. Even in a recession, the positive net inflow of foreign capital is at its highest in 15 years—$4.3 billion net has come into Canada because of the Free Trade Agreement. It’s important that we be part of the [three-way] negotiation. Otherwise, you’d have had a situation emerge where the
United States could become the centre of a series of deals where we’d all be spokes in a wheel. This is going to be trilateral all the way. Maclean’s: Do you think it’s feasible to have an agreement in a presidential election year? Mulroney: I think so. But I suppose it’s possible that President Bush could get a deal and not be able to get it through Congress. Maclean’s: Why do you think so many Canadians oppose the FTA and the larger deal? Mulroney: Any industrialized society has a wellspring of anti-Americanism. We have it in Canada as virulent and as meanspirited as you’ll find anywhere in the world. There are lots of anti-Americans. But in the 1988 election, we found out that there’s really not enough of them to elect a dogcatcher, let alone a prime minister. The 1993 campaign is going to be very interesting. What are you for? Because we know exactly what the LiberalNDP coalition gave us 10 years ago. My message to the Canadian people is very simple: ‘You want more of the same? You vote for those two over there.’ Now, if you want what we’ve been doing, take a look at us. It’s as clear-cut as that.
Maclean’s: You do sound like someone who is certainly going to run in the next election. Mulroney: I would look forward to it. We’ve got five parties now. So you’re slicing up a smaller pie. The numbers have changed and people don’t understand that. But the fundamentals are the same. In 1984, we started 14 points behind on the day the writ was issued. And we won. In 1988, six months before [the election], we were behind 25 points before the writ was issued. In a five-man race, we’re within spitting distance of the NDP. Then when we’re in second place, guess where we’re going?
We’re going to challenge the guy who is in first.
What’s he offering? Is Jean Chrétien the man you want to represent you internationally? Is Jean Chrétien the man you want to handle your spending? Is this the guy that you want to go into Quebec and sell constitutional proposals? These are legitimate questions Canadians will have to ask.
If you’ve got a mortgage, you’ve seen what this man has done before as minister of finance.
He’s been there. He was in the cabinet during the most massive recession in Canada’s history. Twice as severe as we’re going through now.
But for all that, you’ve got to know how to run a good campaign. This is 51 days of dynamite. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. And when you go down in a campaign,
you’ve got to know how to come back. So there are all kinds of variables. Job security is not great in this job. But it shouldn’t be in a democracy. That’s what it’s all about. So you do what you can and you put it in the window and you run like hell. If they say ‘yeah,’ you’re OK. If they say ‘no,’ you’re gone. That’s the way it is.
Maclean’s: Are you concerned that there appears to be a worldwide reaction against elected leaders? Mulroney: It’s everywhere. Anything can happen. It hasn’t been safe for me but I’m getting better. I’ve taken the tough decisions at the beginning of the mandate and now we’re actually seeing a little bit of sunshine. These demonstrations are depressing for me, they’re so small. I used to get really good ones during GST and free
trade. This is kinda lonesome for us. Little tiny things, a couple of hundred people on a good day. I think that after being Prime Minister for 7V2 years, I’m entitled to a better demonstration than that. They’re all rent-a-crowds
from the CLC and the NDP. There hasn’t been a good, spontaneous demonstration in a long time.
Maclean’s: You have said that you wouldn’t want the national unity issue to be part of an election campaign. Why is that?
Mulroney: I think the national unity question is one that goes to the heart of our well-being. This is not some frivolous question that someone has imagined. This is a real-life event that may result in the dismemberment of our country. So those of us who are on one side of Canada—the Liberals, NDP, the Conservatives—we can have legitimate and very interesting disagreements in an election campaign about interest rates, but we agree fundamentally on our desire to keep the country together. For that reason, and because federalism and Canada needs all the supporters it can get in Quebec, why would we divide our forces in an election campaign, which is already sufficiently divisive? Countries are forever.
There are enough reasons for Canadians to be legitimately disappointed in me as a political leader. And in Jean Chrétien and Audrey McLaughlin. I don’t want them taking their disappointments out on Canada. If they want to take it out on Brian Mulroney, it’s easy. You throw him out of office. That’s fair ball. But if you mix them all up, you could get the wrong decision for the wrong reasons, and that would be a double tragedy. I think we should try to avoid that. Let them make those decisions in the sunshine in a clear-cut way. □