The Mulroney Factor

Commentary, Role of Government, Rebecca Walberg

Canadian politics can fairly be described as sclerotic and corrupt, but not generally rancorous. Yet Brian Mulroney, who became prime minister in 1984 with the largest parliamentary majority in history, has the distinction of being one of the most polarizing politicians in recent Canadian history—even more polarizing, oddly, than his most notable successor, Jean Chrétien, who literally choked a protester; and his famed predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, who often responded to critics with obscene words and hand gestures.

So it comes as no surprise that Mulroney’s recently released memoir, which ends with his retirement from national politics in 1993, has caused a stir. While former adversaries were predictably scathing, Canada’s conservative pundits were surprisingly lackluster in their appraisals of both the book and the Mulroney legacy. The 1,100 pages cover a wide gamut of Mulroney’s political and personal stories, including a frank discussion of the rumors of alcoholism that have long followed him. While providing ample evidence of his ability to hold a grudge, the book also shows that, on many issues, Mulroney has perhaps a clearer understanding of how he changed Canada than do many of his critics.

On many issues, Mulroney perhaps has a clearer understanding of how he changed Canada than do many of his critics.As prime minister and leader of the center-right Progressive Conservative Party, he sought a meaningful position for Canada in international affairs. His leadership in persuading the British Commonwealth nations to take a firmer line against South African apartheid marked a distinct shift from the more parochial politics of Trudeau. Mulroney also dramatically improved ties with Washington. If he admits finding Ronald Reagan occasionally tiresome, Mulroney nonetheless recognized that the bilateral relationship was crucial to his country’s economic and political strength. The U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, perhaps his single most significant achievement, proved him correct. Meanwhile, Mulroney’s contribution to the Gulf War in 1991 marked the first combat assignment of Canadian forces since Korea, and it affirmed that, despite having only limited military power, Canada could still play a legitimate role in the post-Cold War security environment.

Mulroney’s domestic legacy is more uneven. Take the controversial goods-and-services tax (GST), imposed in 1991. In his book, Mulroney makes a convincing argument that the GST—a transparent consumption tax that replaced a murky and poorly implemented manufacturing tax—was good policy. Left unmentioned, though, is just how Mulroney eventually forced the GST through Parliament.

When Canada’s largely ceremonial Senate, whose members hold lifelong political appointments, moved to block the bill, Mulroney exercised a controversial clause enabling him to appoint eight new senators in order to break the deadlock between the House and the Senate. In response, Canada’s western populist movement, which briefly coalesced to form the nation’s leading conservative party, began agitating to abolish the Senate. Mulroney’s exercise of the so-called “Deadlock Clause” suggested a contemptuous attitude toward not only Canadian voters but also Canada’s political institutions.

Mulroney sought a meaningful position for Canada in international affairs. This included dramatically improving ties with Washington.At the time, the U.S.-Canada FTA, which became a stepping stone on the path to NAFTA, was as controversial as the GST. Mulroney is generous in his praise of the politicians, diplomats, lawyers, and negotiators whose work yielded such a successful accord, and he predicts that it will one day be considered a great national achievement. Despite warnings from across the spectrum that Canada’s sovereignty, culture, social programs, and healthcare would all be damaged by American influence, today Canadians enjoy a robust economy and a thriving culture. The problems that continue to plague Canada’s social-welfare infrastructure have nothing to do with the United States.

Whatever its shortcomings, the U.S.-Canada FTA was certainly preferable to maintaining the status quo of stagnant internal trade and reliance on European markets. Indeed, a liberalized trade policy has significantly boosted the Canadian economy. According to recent estimates, roughly one-third of Canadian jobs are derived from Canada’s exports; and nearly 90 percent of Canadian exports go to the United States.

In general, Mulroney pushed an often reluctant Canadian public toward smaller government, freer enterprise, and a reduced public sector. Most notably, he privatized airlines and the state petroleum corporation. To call Mulroney “Canada’s Reagan” or “Canada’s Thatcher” would be excessive, but he did pull Canada into closer alignment with those two leaders and their nations.

Yet despite his triumphs, Mulroney left Canadian conservatism in worse shape than he found it, and thus paved the way for a decade of mediocre economic policy and reflexive anti-Americanism at the federal level. The political cost of ramming through the GST and the U.S.-Canada FTA was the effective destruction of the Conservative Party (which has only recently rebuilt itself into a credible national party). The Liberal Party stepped into that vacuum, and only lost power after a wave of corruption and patronage scandals.

It is clear, though, that Mulroney understands the true nature of his legacy more than even his present-day supporters do. By changing the direction of Canada’s foreign policy and domestic economic agenda, he completed the lengthy process, begun after World War I, of making Canada a primarily North American country, rather than just a Commonwealth member state and grown-up colony.

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