Maclean’s columnist Peter C. Newman has known Brian Mulroney well for 32 years. During Mulroney’s nearly 8V2 years as Prime Minister, Newman has had wide access to 24 Sussex Drive and is planning to write Mulroney’s unofficial biography. When the Prime Minister stepped down last week, Newman summed up his legacy:
If the secret of governing Canada is knowing what touchy issues to leave alone, Brian Mulroney has been a dud. But if a prime minister’s record is judged by his political will to risk unpopularity in the name of what he believes to be essential national initiatives, the Boyo from BaieComeau has managed an achievement of impressive proportions.
No fair judgment of his stormy time in office can be made until a decent interval separates the dismal perception with which Canada’s 18th Prime Minister was held from his lengthy list of legislative accomplishments. Whatever that assessment turns out to be, there’s no doubt that Brian Mulroney permanently altered the political landscape of the country he governed for most of the past hectic decade.
Never has there been a Prime Minister quite like this selfassured Irish-Quebecer who hung up his political spurs last week, after 3,082 days in office. His public support swung between the triumph of winning two consecutive Conservative majorities (something unprecedented in this century)—and a humiliating 11-per-cent approval rating, the lowest ever recorded.
Unlike most of his predecessors who enjoyed the good fortune of presiding over a more or less predictable electorate that believed in gradual evolution—characterized by the fact that it took us 98 years to get our own flag— Mulroney found himself trying to govern a Canada in the grip of a profound social revolution and something close to an economic collapse. Everything changed. The once placid citizens who inhabit these northern latitudes roundly rejected such once deeply felt national characteristics as deference to the established order of things. Almost overnight, political authority came to be regarded not as the guardian of “peace, order and good government,” but as a force to be challenged and overthrown.
Mulroney thus became an agent of change so drastic that the country he leaves behind in this gloomy winter of 1993 bears remarkably little resemblance to the Canada whose governance he eagerly embraced on Sept. 17,1984. During the interval, he roused more hostility and controversy than any Canadian prime minister in this century, being blamed for every dead sparrow that fell from the sky.
If Mulroney suffered one fatal weakness, it was his tendency to assume personal blame for nearly all of his ministers’ many pratfalls. At crisis points in past administrations, prime ministers
Canadians blamed him for every dead sparrow that fell from the sky
such as William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau would back away from their politically wounded colleagues, cut them out of the loop, demand their resignations—then carry on as if they had never known their names. Mulroney too often backed his offending ministers and MPs when they were not just walking wounded, but walking dead. As a result, he became a national lightning rod, the target for every complaint from every corner of the country.
Mulroney’s time in office turned out to be a long siege marked by few calm interludes. He was in power longer than all but four Canadian heads of government (King, Sir John A. Macdonald, Trudeau and Sir Wilfrid Laurier), outlasted an astonishing 19 provincial premiers and survived nearly every leader of the Western world. His record was all the more remarkable because he served no official apprenticeship, never having run for any office except the top job. Mulroney gained his party’s leadership in 1983 for three main reasons: his crowd appeal and organizing ability; he held out the promise of winning a majority of the seats in Quebec, which the party had not held in almost a century—except for the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958; and because he was not Joe Clark, whose government, elected in the spring of 1979, had died like an unwanted child nine months later.
During his first term, Mulroney attempted to maintain the popularity that gave him the largest mandate Canadians ever granted any federal politician by promising everyone everything. Using ids best Kirk Douglas whisper to emphasize his concerns, Mulroney’s idea was to spread as large an umbrella as possible over the ideological centre of Canadian politics, then to pull a majority of the voters under it with him, so that the Conservatives’ minority core-vote would be permanently expanded. The other characteristic of those first four years was his intense partisanship. He had come to political manhood as a federal Tory in Quebec. That meant you watched your Grit contemporaries being ushered into patronage heaven, while you felt lucky there was not a bounty on your scalp. Mulroney took power determined to right the balance. And he did.
Even before he was re-elected with a second majority in 1988 (the first time a Tory leader had accomplished that since Macdonald in 1891), Mulroney had to make tough choices that placed the very future of the country in play. Assessing his record in how he dealt with those watershed issues, it is difficult to differentiate between those policies based on his personal sense of priorities (forging friendlier relations with the Americans, boycotting South Africa, privatizing Crown corporations and bringing Quebec into the constitutional family), and those he felt compelled to implement in response to the unpredictable circumstances of the moment (the Goods and Services Tax, free
trade with the United States, and later Mexico, and the 1992 constitutional referendum). His controversial policy initiatives and the untidy and often politically damaging way they were implemented gradually soured the mood of the country against him.
The Canada Mulroney found himself governing was not the gentle, peaceable kingdom postulated by the literary critic Northrop Frye, but a nation grown hard and cynical, uncertain of its place in a rapidly changing world. Instead of being able to tackle an orderly procession of issues and circumstances, Mulroney was forced to deal with a sequence of tumbling paradoxes, a political agenda set by the winds—or, more precisely, the hurricanes—of change.
A conservative by temperament and inclination, the Progressive Conservative leader might have been expected to try to escape those social and economic upheavals by hunkering down and doing as little as possible. Instead, he behaved like an obsessive beekeeper, walking around the buzzing apiary that had become Canada, punching holes into every hive he could find. More often than not, the liberated bees stung the man who had set them free.
In the end, Brian Mulroney became both the agent of Canada’s social revolution—and its chief victim. By choice and by circumstance, he turned out to be the most radical of Canadian prime ministers—radical, in the precise dictionary meaning of that word, as someone who “goes to the root of things and advocates fundamental changes.” It was the prevailing mystery of the Mulroney Years that its central figure was mercilessly condemned for being a political opportunist animated solely by partisan concerns. Yet, if that had indeed been his root motivation, he would hardly have spent most of his time and energy championing laws, pacts and causes that carried no shortor medium-term political benefits—only potentially lethal electoral costs.
Because he never articulated any cohesive philosophy, Mulroney’s operational code was dismissed as being based mainly on keeping in telephone-touch with his cronies and listening to what the boys at Montreal’s Mount Royal Club were saying. This was an unfair accusation, not because he was a deep or original thinker, but because under that ambassadorial coiffeur and the rain-barrel resonance of his voice, there still lurked the small-town electrician’s son from Baie-Comeau with populist aspirations and a genuine concern for the underprivileged. Neither rebel nor reactionary, Mulroney personified his party’s oxymoronic Progressive Conservative label, believing much more in the former than the latter.
His brand of politics flowed from a trio of formative experiences: growing up under modest circumstances in Quebec’s economically marginal North Shore; attending St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., at a time when its guiding spirit, Father Moses Coady, vowed that he would implant a social conscience in all his students; and being a member of Quebec’s royal commission on labor troubles in the construction industry. There, 279 witnesses described the mayhem caused by unbridled unionism and uncontrolled capitalism, spinning tales of betrayal and officials being knifed in the back. (Great training for trying to run the Conservative party, which for the past 10 generations had been tearing itself apart by regularly destroying its leaders.)
The sum of these experiences forged the future prime minister’s conviction that extreme positions seldom resolve anything—and that while the social con-
tract was essential, unearned handouts could be deadly to the human spirit. Long before he got into politics, Mulroney had been preoccupied with making Canada’s economy more internationally competitive, believing in the Abraham Lincoln dictum that “you cannot help the wageearner by pulling down the wage-payer, or help the poor by destroying the rich.”
The problem with such ideas was that they ran directly counter to what was happening in the real world, where the harshest recession since the 1930s had turned industrial Canada into an economic abattoir. Suddenly, nothing mattered except creating new jobs. That is what governments do in recessions—or did, when Keynesian economics ruled the roost. But as French President François Mitterrand pointed out, “Employment no longer responds to governments—and I mean governments in the plural.”
Throughout his term,
Mulroney was in the impossible position of trying to please an electorate that expected too much from economic resources that had become, not just modest, but extinct. With a bare treasury, cleaned out by his predecessor, Mulroney could not afford to offer any uniting economic initiatives or the kind of massive giveaways that had kept Trudeau in power for 15 extravagant years.
Disillusioned voters responded by searching out their own purposes and priorities—a process aided immeasurably by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The national political agenda began to be dominated by special-interest lobbies dedicated to shaping the country in their own image. Suddenly, no one who represented the established order of things was safe. It was the pressure of these special-interest groups that turned into a tidal wave and
drowned the Charlottetown constitutional accord in the Oct. 26 referendum.
The problem with trying to assess the politics of the past 8V2 years was not so much what Brian Mulroney did or failed to do. What formed the dominant judgment of him, instead, was how he was perceived by people whose only access was through the distorted looking glass of the television lens. He came to office just as TV was becoming the media of instant record, with CNN, and later, CBC Newsworld keeping the country on constant political alert. Every Canadian living room became a whispering gallery, with political events flashed from coast to coast as they happened—well, not quite as they happened, since each tightly edited item was squished between commentary that placed what was being described strictly within the reporter’s own, often anti-government, predilections.
At the same time, there was something unnerving about Mulroney whenever he appeared on TV. The camera’s glass eye made him act, not like himself, but like a small-town boy so awed by having become Prime Minister that he could not let himself go. Anyone who had ever been touched by his decency and humor had trouble recognizing his television image—yet that was how most of the country perceived him.
The one-sided feud between Mulroney and the media started almost the moment he was elected. Only two weeks later, on Oct. 2,1984, when Statistics Canada announced an unemployment increase of 29,000, CBC
TV news reporter Christopher Walmsley cited the figures, showed a campaign clip of Mulroney promising “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and concluded, “The Prime Minister has failed his first test.” Similarly, after his 1988 re-election, which he won against all odds, the first question at the first news conference he gave at Baie-Comeau, on the morning of what was to be his sweetest triumph, came from Les Whittington of Southam News. Referring to some of Mulroney’s vague musings about limiting prime ministerial terms, Whittington demanded: “So, when are you going to resign?” As Mulroney later confided to a friend: “People tell me all politicians get a honeymoon. I only had 20 minutes after the coffee I had that morning. I thought they might give me a break, say a couple of days.”
The essential turning points of the Mulroney Years were the failures to
ratify the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. It never ceased to puzzle Mulroney why Trudeau’s 1982 patriation of the Constitution that left Quebec out in the cold and had been drafted by three politicos huddled in a kitchen during the middle of the night was celebrated as a public triumph, while his own negotiations—carried out almost entirely before the TV cameras—which twice achieved unanimous agreement for allowing Quebec into Canada’s constitutional family, were dismissed as nonstarters.
Still, it was the overwhelming No vote in October, as well as his gradual realization that no matter what he did, public opinion was frozen against him, that finally drove Mulroney to decide it was time to go. The personal price of staying had become too high. Mulroney knew that no matter how good his intentions, the people no longer wished to retain him as custodian of the nation’s soul or government, and that his sense of duty to country and party could best be served by achieving yet another milestone: becoming the only Tory Prime Minister in Canadian history to depart office voluntarily. He leaves the prime ministership having enacted more than 100 major pieces of legislation, with the high regard of the international community and with an enviable record in keeping the Tory caucus united, which in some ways was his greatest achievement. Those who knew Brian Mulroney best, loved him the most.
He was a good man caught in a wicked time. Only in retrospect will some of his most risky initiatives receive the credit they deserve. □
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