The friendship of two very pragmatic politicians helped chart a historic deal
Fourteen years ago, Canadians voted in one of the most crucial federal elections in the country’s history—with free trade with the United States as the dominant issue. As opposition built across English Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney counted on a powerful electoral weapon —his strong relationship with Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. In this excerpt from From Bourassa to Bourassa: Wilderness to Restoration, to be released next week by McGill-Queen’s University Press, author and journalist L. Ian
MacDonald, a close associate of both men who worked for Mulroney as a speechwriter, recounts the inside story of their dealings:
MULRONEY AND BOURASSA were destined to do big things together. They met often, to a degree the press was never aware of. “I used to see Robert privately,” Mulroney recalled. “I would come to Montreal on a Sunday night, for dinner at his house or at his office at HydroQuébec. Or he would come to Harrington
Bourassa and Mulroney (1986) both believed in ‘a philosophical friendship’
Lake. We really had the opportunity to talk things through.”
“In politics, friendship is something that has to be looked at philosophically,” Bourassa would observe in 1995. “You can have very friendly and very personal relations, as I had with Mr. Mulroney. But as a general rule, it’s the old principle of realpolitik that applies here. Politics is above all an alignment of forces. So, per-
sonal relations can improve the climate and mutual understanding. But at bottom, it’s the people’s interest that is by far the determining factor.”
By the time Mulroney and Bourassa took office in the mid-1980s, they had been close friends for more than a decade. The senior advisers in the PMO and the premier’s office, known as the Bunker, took their principals as their role models and managed a close relationship. Even when the interests of Ottawa and Quebec differed or diverged, as they often did, one Cabinet du Premier Ministre would usually give a heads-up to the other.
Early in January, 1988, some of Mulroney’s campaign advisers were sitting around the Prime Minister’s boardroom in the Langevin Block, discussing how to sell the Free Trade Agreement in the pre-writ period leading up to the federal election expected that fall.
“Do you think?” asked Harry Near, an Ottawa consultant who would run Mulroney’s campaign tour, “that we could get Bourassa to introduce the Prime Minister at a lunch in Montreal?”
Bernard Roy, Mulroney’s close friend and principal secretary, picked up the phone, and soon Bourassa was on the line. “Damn good idea,” he agreed. On Jan. 29, speaking at a packed luncheon of a thousand business people at the Chambre de Commerce de Montréal métropolitain, Bourassa walked through all the reasons for Quebecers to support free trade, and he even offered to go across the country selling it. Bourassa concluded his introduction by presenting the Prime Minister as “le grand artisan de l’unité nationale.” Sitting at a table near the podium, Pierre Pettigrew, former executive assistant to Claude Ryan and future international trade minister in the Chrétien government, made a low whistling sound. “That’s going far,” he said, especially for someone like Bourassa, who chose his words carefully. It was more than an introduction—it was a laying on of hands by Bourassa at a time when Mulroney’s Conservatives were still trailing Turner’s Liberals in the opinion polls, in Quebec as across Canada. Raymond Garneau, his own former finance minister and now Quebec lieutenant of the Turner Liberals in Ottawa, complained that Bourassa was too friendly with Mulroney and that he should be “less chummy.”
‘This thing isn’t going to go,’ Mulroney said. But the threat of a last minute call to Ronald Reagan helped ensure that, in fact, it did.
There can be no doubt—free trade would never have got done without Bourassa’s support throughout the negotiations and Quebec’s strong endorsement in the election of Nov. 21, 1988, which was transformed into a plebiscite on the issue. From the beginning of the free trade talks in June, 1986, to their conclusion in October, 1987, Bourassa was on board. So was Alberta’s Don Getty. The alliance of Quebec and Alberta was the heart of the Mulroney political coalition.
On the evening of Saturday, Oct. 3, 1987, Mulroney and a handful of senior federal ministers were closeted in the familiar fourth-floor boardroom, Room 414 North, of the Langevin Block, while in Washington the Canadian negotiating team made one last effort to clinch a free trade deal with the Americans before President Ronald Reagan’s “fast track” authority, to negotiate an agreement for an up-or-down vote without amendment by the Congress, expired at midnight.
But when it came to Canada’s bottom line, the Americans would not move on the grounds that dispute settlement tribunals would diminish the sovereign authority of the Congress and the U.S. government. It was a deal-breaker.
“This thing isn’t going to go,” Mulroney said, as he waited for a call to be placed from the bank of phone booths outside the conference room.
Around 9:30 that night, Mulroney spoke with U.S. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker, who had taken over the free trade file for the White House. “You know, Mr. Prime Minister,” Baker said, “I don’t think we can get you this.”
“I’m telling you what I’m going to tell President Reagan,” Mulroney told Baker. “You’ll have to explain why you could make an arms treaty with your worst enemies, the Russians, but not a trade treaty with your best friends, the Canadians.”
“PM,” Baker replied, “can you give me half an hour?”
Over the next two hours, an agreement
was reached, and with only half an hour to the fast-track deadline, Baker burst into the Canadian delegation room, in his Treasury office suite, announcing a police escort for a messenger carrying a letter from the President of the United States to the clerks of the House of Representatives and the Senate, stating that an agreement had been reached within the fast-track deadline.
Finally, Mulroney himself got on the phone with Derek Burney, and came to his bottom line. “Is this whole thing better than what we’ve got?”
And Burney’s momentous reply: “Yes, Prime Minister.”
“Okay, Derek,” Mulroney said. “Go ahead.”
In Quebec, Bourassa led an extraordinary consensus in favor of free trade that included the opposition Parti Québécois, the entire business community, and most opinion-makers. But John Turner touched a responsive chord in the English television debate of Oct. 25, when he accused Mulroney of betraying the national interest in negotiating the Free Trade Agreement. “I believe you have sold us out,” Turner said, and in the next week, the Liberals actually moved ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, even in Quebec. The campaign had been transformed into a one-issue election, a referendum on free trade.
As Mulroney’s chartered Boeing 727 flew out of Ottawa on Nov. 1 for a crucial week-long western swing, the Prime Minister buckled himself into his wide seat in the forward cabin. “Turner’s got the momentum,” he said. “Now we’re going to find out what we’re made of.”
Still, Bourassa never wavered in his support. On Nov. 9, with the Mulroney tour in southern Ontario, Bourassa called the Prime Minister’s bus with a simple message: “We’re going to win.”
In the end, the Mulroney-Bourassa alliance delivered 63 of Quebec’s 75 seats in a historic endorsement of the Free Trade Agreement, while Alberta saw a clean sweep of 26 Conservative seats. The Quebec-Alberta alliance held, delivering 89 seats out of 170 for the Conservatives in the new 295-seat House of Commons. Free trade was a done deal. lifl
Reprinted by permission of McGill-Queen’s University Press
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.