On Sept. 10, Douglas Gibson Books and McClelland & Stewart will release Memoirs: 1939-1993, by former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. In advance of this extraordinary literary event, the National Post is publishing a five-part essay series examining Brian Mulroney's legacy. In today's first instalment, Robert Fulford argues that Quebec was Mr. Mulroney's most monumental failure by the time he left politics.
As prime minister from 1984 to 1993, Brian Mulroney surprised everyone, perhaps even himself.
His story seemed simple enough, a traditional narrative about a small-town working-class boy scrambling to the top through brains, education, energy and eloquence.
In office, however, Mulroney proved a bundle of contradictions, so unpredictable that he first baffled and then appalled the citizens. His style marked him as a pure politician, desperately anxious to please, but he also turned out to be a risk-taker, the most daring prime minister in generations. The Free Trade Agreement with the United States, his great success, and the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, his great failure, were both spectacular gambles.
Yet his audacity did not much impress the public. Voters noted his every flaw and ignored every virtue. In nine years of intimate contact, he and the electorate never formed a bond.
Instead, after achieving remarkable success in two general elections, he left office wretchedly unpopular, having long outstayed his welcome. Michael Bliss, the distinguished historian, noted that Mulroney knew how to manage the elites (premiers, business executives and his own Tory MPs), "but when he urged Canadians to go over the top with him, they shot him in the back."
Those of us who remember his years as prime minister with affection and sympathy are vastly outnumbered by those who consider him an unprincipled rogue who oiled his way into the prime minister's office. Pierre Trudeau grew in stature after retirement, acclaimed as the people's hero, the man who created the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, from which (millions apparently believe) all blessings flow. Mulroney, who hoped to give a better performance than Trudeau's, and even planned to undo Trudeau's mistakes, ended up occupying one of the lower rungs of history's ladder.
Quebec was the source of Mulroney's power and the site of his grandest dreams. His well-founded promise that he could deliver Quebec to the Conservative party was a major reason he won the leadership -- and in fact Quebec backed him in the 1984 election and remained loyal in 1988, when he became the only 20th-century Tory leader to win two successive majorities.
His goal from the start was to win a permanently important place for the Conservatives in Quebec. But if Quebec looked like his great advantage when he entered national politics, it was his most monumental failure by the time he left.
He set out to bring permanent internal peace to Canada by dissolving the arguments for separatism. He claimed to understand Quebec as no other English-speaking Tory did. He had grown up in Baie Comeau, studied in Quebec City and practised law and politics in Montreal. He sympathized with the Quebec government's refusal to accept the patriation package of 1981 and its belief that this Trudeau-directed constitutional change left Quebecers outside the "constitutional family."
Not long after taking office he began talking about an arrangement that would satisfy Quebec at last. Quebec wanted to be recognized as a "distinct society" and wanted more power. Since this power would have to be granted to all provinces, other premiers found the idea attractive. At Meech Lake 10 premiers and Mulroney agreed, among other things, that the provinces would have a role in choosing senators and Supreme Court judges and would have greater autonomy in social services; they also agreed to recognize the distinct society of Quebec.
Almost the entire political class of Canada, plus its leading bureaucrats, fell into line. Certainly John Turner's Liberals and Ed Broad-bent's New Democrats were among the enthusiasts. It looked like a triumph for Mulroney.
Meech Lake had to be ratified by all the provinces within three years, which looked easy and turned out to be impossible. Mulroney raised the issue to the level of hysteria with his claim that the failure of Meech would doom Canada. Still, the deadline was missed and the Accord was a failure. Under Mulroney, public meetings across the country then led to the Charlottetown Accord. It promised better treatment of education and the environment as well as the elimination of interprovincial trade barriers.
It, too, called Quebec a distinct society.
Unlike Meech Lake, Charlottetown required a national referendum. Once again, consensus proved unreachable; 54% of votes cast were against the agreement. The Charlottetown Accord died on referendum day, Oct. 26, 1992, and Mulroney's dream of being the man who unified Canada died with it.
Everyone called Mulroney shrewd, but shrewdness often deserted him. At the 1983 convention that made him leader, right-wing delegates were his strongest supporters but in office he disillusioned them. In 1985 he tried to reduce the deficit through de-indexing old-age pensions and family allowances, meaning they would effectively be cut by inflation. The reaction to this proposal was so furious that Mulroney and his finance minister, Michael Wilson, quickly backed down. Those two actions, the announcement and the retraction, affronted two distinct constituencies.
Those on the right, who had been glad to see the deficit finally addressed, discovered that Mulroney couldn't defend his own ideas. (They had to wait for the regime of Jean Chretien, and his finance minister, Paul Martin, who brought in the budgets that Michael Wilson yearned to introduce.) Worse, the turnabout made no friends among those Mulroney wanted to appease. Liberals and liberals saw him as the betrayer of "a sacred trust," as he had once called the Canadian social safety net. Those who considered government the engine of Canadian progress regarded him as a barbarian who laid waste many of our cherished institutions.
On trade, Mulroney started out as a traditional Conservative opponent of any closer connection to the U.S. But in government he discovered that senior civil servants and business executives now believed that Canada's prosperity required a new treaty ensuring access to American markets. Mulroney adopted that idea, made a tentative agreement with the Americans, and then discovered that he had to fight the 1988 general election on this issue. His opponents, above all John Turner, said the Free Trade Agreement would erode Canadian sovereignty and threaten everything from our public health system to control of Canadian water. With Quebec's help, Mulroney won the election and ratified the treaty.
After the 1993 election, Liberal policy moved decisively in Mulroney's direction. The Chretien government not only reaffirmed Mulroney's treaty but extended it to cover Mexico. The Liberals also became converts to the Goods and Service Tax (GST) introduced by Mulroney. Though they had promised to repudiate it when they took office, they decided on second thought that the GST was also worth keeping. Logically, Mulroney Conservatives should have celebrated this further proof that they had been right all along.
But by the time Chretien's policies were firmly in place, it was hard to find a Mulroney Conservative. The 1993 election reduced his party's caucus in Parliament to two MPs, the clearest of many signs that events had fundamentally altered Canadian politics. Meech Lake, far from extinguishing separatist feelings, had inflamed them; the Bloc Quebecois won 54 seats and became the Official Opposition. In the West the Reform Party rose on waves of anger over Meech, Charlottetown, and Mulroney's free-spending ways. His influence could be felt everywhere. Mulroney had reshaped federal politics in Canada, but not in the way he hoped.