It took Vicky Maclean of The Edmonton Sun to point out the obvious. In her column following the conclusion of the recent Ottawa constitutional talks, she identified the negotiator who had carried the day. “Like it or not,” she wrote, “if this deal is approved by the people of Canada, Brian Mulroney will go down in history as one of our most important prime ministers. That’s only fair. If he takes the rap for his government’s perceived failures, he should get the applause for its apparent successes. Even if today’s Canadians never acknowledge Mulroney’s achievements, it’s likely their grandchildren will.” Almost alone among Canadian commentators, Maclean gave credit for the agreement that was hammered out to the politician who made it possible. In her column, she explains how hard it was. “Don’t think this is easy to say,” she confesses. “Praise of Brian Mulroney has become the one great taboo of Canadian journalism and inevitably brings letters dripping scorn and odd looks from colleagues.” That reaction was not shared by those who were in the room during the five-day Ottawa negotiations. One politician not afraid to acknowledge Mulroney’s negotiating skills is Prince Edward Island’s Joe Ghiz, currently heading the premiers’ conferences. “I don’t belong to the same political party as the Prime Minister,” he told me, “and I disagree with a lot of the policies of the Conservative government, but I have to compliment him on this issue. His leadership on the national unity question has been outstanding. He handled the negotiations admirably, with one primary focus in mind, and that is the unity of Canada. He never got annoyed at people and listened to everyone’s concerns, even though from time to time he disagreed.
“I’ve heard this business about him using the hard-knuckle tactics of a union negotiator, right back to Meech Lake,” said Ghiz, “and I kept being warned about his pressure tactics and that all of us would be put in a pressure cooker. None of that happened—at least I
He skilfully played off the premiers’ objections against themselves, allowing them to find their own way to his conclusions
didn’t sense it. At this most recent session, again, he didn’t threaten to muscle anybody, to exert undue pressure, and didn’t try to negotiate any trade-offs by hinting, ‘Look, you people need money for this or that from the feds, and if you don’t play ball, you won’t get it’ There was none of that. It was a genuine attempt to arrive at a consensus. And it worked.”
Other premiers were equally generous in their praise, but most Canadians feel so burned out on the Constitution that they were just glad, at least temporarily, to have it over with. That understandably sour mood should not be allowed to obscure the enormity of the political achievement in winning a constitutional formula that will now lead to a national referendum.
What Mulroney did, according to those who were in the negotiating room with him, was not so much hammer home any specific federal position as to choreograph the flow of the debates. That meant there wasn’t any one specific defining moment. But as chairman, he created the atmosphere and provided the leadership that made it possible for the premiers to confront the reality that, at this particular moment in Canadian history, the national interest had to rank ahead of their own. That shift in attitudes among what is, by definition,
a group of rabid partisans with sharply divided provincial mandates and loyalties, ultimately made agreement possible.
Mulroney’s method worked, partly, because of Joe Clark’s magnificent 14-month effort in creating goodwill for Ottawa among several doubting constituencies. He not only persuaded the premiers and aboriginal leaders that the PC government genuinely wanted to reach a deal that would reflect their concerns and would be good for everybody, but he wore out the participants (including himself) so that the very idea of continuing the negotiations for another, unspecified, term became a threat in itself.
Looking back on those crucial days, both at Harrington Lake and the later meetings in the Pearson Building, there were at least half a dozen times when the negotiations faltered and almost went off the rails. That was where Mulroney’s choreographing skills came in. Sometimes it was his timely adjournments that saved the day; more often, he skilfully played off the participants’ objections against themselves, allowing them to find their own way to his conclusions. Amazingly, one of the most constructive voices around the table was that of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells.
The first run at reform took place in 1926, when Canada’s politicians decided it was time to patriate the British North America Act, since we were one of the only independent nations on earth whose Constitution was still lodged in our former mother country. That meant begging Westminster’s permission every time we wanted to pass an amendment. Over the next 55 years, 11 major initiatives were launched to discover some magic formula that would satisfy French and English Canada. None was ever found. In a last-minute attempt to assure his place in history, Pierre Trudeau finally brought the Constitution home in 1981, though he could not win Quebec’s agreement.
Brian Mulroney has now succeeded where Pierre Trudeau failed. He is, in fact, the first Canadian prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald, who initially brought the country together, to have negotiated a major constitutional rapprochement between French and English Canada.
That doesn’t mean that all our basic problems have been resolved. It is true that without a constitutional accord, we would have no country. But the most perfect of constitutions will not light our way to the millenium unless we can find a way to kick-start the economy. Only through the renewal of the surge of capital investment that has always been the foundation of our economic strength will consumers find the courage to start buying again—and that, in turn, will ease the agony of mass unemployment and cut budget deficits.
To think of Macdonald and Mulroney in the same breath is a leap of logic that will baffle and even anger most Canadians. Yet the two men (who also hold in common the fact that no other Conservative prime minister has ever won two electoral majorities in a row) believed with equal ferocity in the country they governed—and both moved its prospects significantly forward.
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