Politics

Brian Mulroney’s long bet on history paid off

On the day he announced his intention to resign as prime minister after nearly nine years in office, Brian Mulroney appealed to the verdict of future generations.

“It will now be up to history to place a definitive judgment on our efforts and our legacy,” he said.

Thirty years later, in one of his last public speeches, Mulroney passed his own verdict on his political history — a judgment that Justin Trudeau, another beleaguered prime minister now nearly nine years in office, quoted in the House of Commons last week to mark Mulroney’s passing:

“I have learned over the years that history is unconcerned with the trivia and the trash of rumours and gossip floating around Parliament Hill,” Mulroney said. “History is only concerned with the big ticket items that have shaped the future of Canada.”

In 1993, Mulroney was perhaps compelled to appeal to distant opinion — because the opinions of the moment were so often unforgiving. But Mulroney, who was called on to eulogize two American presidents, surely came to know as well as anyone what history remembers and why, particularly at moments such as these.

By the time he resigned, his government had endured its share of controversies (tunagate, guccigate, various other scandals barely remembered now). Two of his attempts at constitutional reform had ended in failure — the latter was defeated in a national referendum. The economy had gone into recession for two years, his landmark trade deal was viewed with skepticism by many and he had implemented a highly unpopular new tax, the GST.

On the day he announced his intention to step aside, Mulroney’s office released a 34-page list of his government’s accomplishments. The nation was not in a mood to read it.

“Mulroney really had no option but to resign,” Angus Reid, the pollster, wrote at the time. “Over the last year he has set new polling records for almost every measure of public disapproval and resentment.”

Reid said the Progressive Conservatives now had one primary task — “to lock the ghost of Brian Mulroney away in a closet and throw away the key.”

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In that moment, Reid’s analysis may have been astute. But the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada was still shattered in the election that followed, winning just two seats — less than a decade after Mulroney led the party to 211 seats and 50 per cent of the popular vote in the 1984 election. Into the breach came the populist Reform Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

WATCH: ‘One of the greatest’ — Gretzky remembers Mulroney

Gretzky: Mulroney was ‘one of the greatest prime ministers we’ve ever had’

In his eulogy for Brian Mulroney, Wayne Gretzky fondly recalls a phone conversation he and his father had with the prime minister during the Canada Cup.

In a survey of historians published in 2016, Mulroney was ranked eighth among Canada’s 23 prime ministers. The survey was conducted just a handful of years after the Oliphant commission and the detailed scoring suggests the questions about Mulroney’s personal conduct were still hanging heavy on his legacy — on “personal integrity,” historians rated Mulroney even lower than John A. Macdonald.

If anything, that seems disrespectful to John A., who deserves to be remembered as the author of the first and greatest scandal in Canadian political history. (Among the prime ministers who served at least four years, Alexander Mackenzie, our largely forgotten second prime minister, was tied for the highest score on personal integrity — which perhaps suggests that a reputation for personal integrity only counts for so much.)

But Mulroney’s highest mark was received in the category of “leaving a significant policy legacy.” And it’s on that score that most observers and contemporaries have been remembering him over the past three weeks.

‘He would make it count’

“He was prime minister and he would make it count,” Jean Charest, a cabinet minister under Mulroney, told his former boss’s state funeral on Saturday, recalling Mulroney’s arrival in high office.

Mulroney’s premiership, Justin Trudeau said, was about “getting the big things right.”

The record of Canada’s 18th prime minister includes the transformative introduction of free trade with the United States. He is remembered and celebrated for his opposition to the scourge of apartheid in South Africa. And his government took great strides to begin protecting and repairing the climate and the atmosphere. A thorough account of what his government did with its nine years would run to at least 34 pages.

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‘We live in a world that he helped shape’: Jean Charest reflects on Brian Mulroney’s legacy

Former Quebec premier and former leader of the Progressive Conservative party Jean Charest honours late prime minister: ‘Because of Brian Mulroney, we live in one of the greatest countries in the world.’

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Conservatives have taken a particular interest these past few weeks in Mulroney’s efforts to contain government spending — through the privatization of numerous Crown corporations, among other things — and tame inflation. But it fell to Charest to remind the assembled at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica that the Goods and Services Tax, and the reliable source of revenue it provides for the federal government, is still with us.

“I can’t think of a more unpopular economic policy than the implementation of the GST,” Charest said. “And yet I can’t think of a more popular economic policy with all the prime ministers and governments that followed in the steps of Brian Mulroney.”

Today’s Conservatives might skip over that bit. But three decades after Mulroney’s memory needed to be locked away, it’s now not hard to imagine Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre invoking his name on the campaign trail in the next election.

And whatever questions linger about how he governed, these past few weeks also have testified to the value of human kindness and the truism that people will remember how you made them feel.

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‘His humanity defined him’: Watch Caroline Mulroney’s full eulogy

Brian Mulroney was “a truly great father” who said family was the most important thing in the world, his daughter Caroline Mulroney said in her eulogy at his state funeral.

When Caroline Mulroney spoke of the “thousands” of calls her father made to people, particularly when he felt they were in need of an emotional lift, she seems not to have been exaggerating. Indeed, Trudeau later said he had only just learned that Mulroney would periodically call his mother, Margaret, to chat — a fact that is all the more remarkable given how fiercely Mulroney and Trudeau’s father clashed over constitutional reform.

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On the importance of being prime minister

A few days after Mulroney announced he would be resigning, Dalton Camp, the political strategist and wordsmith, wrote in the Toronto Star that “being prime minister is a bruising, over-rated and misunderstood occupation, one which invites ingratitude and inspires mistrust.”

“Otherwise, it’s a life,” Camp concluded.

Recalling a figure he’d covered and had then come to know, Anthony Wilson-Smith, the former editor of Maclean’s, wrote last month that “Mulroney spent much of his life doing everything — emotions, ambitions, achievements — on an oversized scale.” 

Amid the celebrations of the man and his deeds, there has been meaningful dissent on the big things that occurred on Mulroney’s watch. History will weigh all that, too.

Family and friends are mourning the loss of someone they loved dearly. But the death of a prime minister — especially one of Mulroney’s record and bearing — is a reminder that the big office comes with opportunities to do big things.

The occupant, equally beleaguered and blessed, is presented with immense challenges and issues and a rare chance to do something about both. Between the trivia and the trash — all the noise of politics in a democracy — there is much that matters, things that are consequential and worth taking seriously.

Every day, a prime minister has a chance to build a better nation.

“We live in the country that he helped build,” Charest told the congregation on Saturday.

That might be true of everyone who has held the job. But history will remember if you did it well.

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