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Tainted legacy
Sep 16, 2005

The musings of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in taped conversation with author Peter C. Newman should actually come as no surprise to most Canadians.

In The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Confessions of a Prime Minister, the ex-PM blames everyone from political enemies to so-called friends for various failures and claims that he will be judged by history as the greatest prime minister since John A. Macdonald.

“By the time history is done looking at this, and you look at my achievements as opposed to others, certainly no one will be in Sir John A.’s league — but my nose will be a little ahead of most in terms of achievements,” he proclaimed to Newman.

If he had narrowed the list down to Conservative PMs since Macdonald, he might have a chance, especially in the 20th century when stellar Tory PMs were sparse. In the last century, he only has to compete against Robert Borden, a fleeting Conservative who ran something he called a Union Government; Arthur Meighen, who was twice PM very briefly; R.B. Bennett, someone few liked and who lasted five years and then fled to England where he died; John Diefenbaker, who squandered a great majority and led his party to defeat in six short years because of his paranoia; Joe Clark, who couldn’t count heads in the House of Commons and brought his government down through a non-confidence vote after a few months; and Kim Campbell, who was left with Mulroney’s mess, contributed to her own troubles and, like so many other 20th century Tory PMs before her, lasted just over two months.

Mulroney’s only real challenge in the 20th-century Conservative PM category comes from Borden, who led Canada during the First World War. But, Borden added to the nation’s woes through such wrongheaded measures as conscription and using force to halt the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, while fretting about a Bolshevik revolution which was not in the works. 

When it came time for Meighen to take over the party, Canadians were tired of Borden’s Union Government and its strong-arm and nation-dividing tactics  — Meighen like Campbell was left out to hang. One thing going for Borden was that he firmly believed in the independence of Canada and strove to distance the nation from British colonialism. He was successful in getting Canadian participation in the peace talks following the war.

In the case of the West, Mulroney managed to create enough alienation to spawn a new party — the Reform Party — because he intervened and made a political decision to award a CF-18 maintenance contract to Montreal-based Canadair, despite Winnipeg-based Bristol Aerospace having a superior and less costly bid.

His political manoeuvre failed. He told Newman his desire was for French-Canadians to have a technological foothold in the 21st century, but it was met with ingratitude in Quebec which wanted still more. Mulroney wanted praise and only received scorn. 

Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge his role in creating a party which divided Conservatives and left a wide gap in their ranks which the Liberals 

eagerly filled to electoral success.

He also doesn’t acknowledge it was 

he who fostered the separatists’ case and created the Bloc Quebecois through the misguided act of re-opening the Constitutional debate and then rolling the dice to get his way. He blames everyone but himself. Lucien Bouchard, the Quebec nationalist who helped found the BQ after the failed Meech Lake Accord, and whom 

Mulroney brought into his cabinet, is singled out for betraying him.

In addition, he claims it was the “vanity” of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau which contributed

 to the fall of the Meech Lake Accord. “He didn’t want anyone to succeed where he had failed,” Mulroney told Newman. He actually seems to be overly obsessed with Trudeau — perhaps because Canadians have been kinder to his legacy, though some 

obvious flaws in his prime ministership do exist.

But, despite the musings of Mulroney, Trudeau had put the separatist question to bed by winning the 1980 Quebec referendum for the federalist forces and repatriating the Constitution. Quebec may not have signed the repatriated Constitution, but, because of Trudeau’s actions, the separatist question was floundering and virtually dead in the water — until Mulroney re-opened the proverbial Pandora’s box.

Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper gets off easier than most of those he heaps scorn upon for defeating the Meech lake Accord — Harper refused to give his consent and the accord died in the Manitoba Legislature— simply because he is aboriginal. Patronizingly, Mulroney said you can’t blame aboriginals “whose land were taken from them, whose lives are infected with prostitution, drunkenness, malnutrition, lack of opportunity ... How can you rush out and blame them? I was very emotional all because of Elijah Harper’s stupidity. He turned down a sweetheart deal.”

Former Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who killed Meech Lake in his province, doesn’t get away from Mulroney’s wrath by simply being called “stupid” like Harper, he is singled out as a “son of a b---h.”

In his profanity-laden media published conversations with Newman, Mulroney comes across as paranoid, vain and in denial, the traits that a lot of Canadians came to hate.

Even while Mulroney was PM, former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon recognized the dislike for him among voters, especially after the CF-18 

fiasco, and distanced himself and his Manitoba party from the federal Tories. During local election campaigns, Progressive Conservative was given fleeting mention in favour of the more widely-touted “Filmon Team.”

Mulroney can be given credit for free trade with the United States, though its continued existence is now threatened by today’s American administration; and he can be said to have laid the groundwork for Canada’s present surpluses by such actions as implementing the GST, though he left the nation in historically its greatest financial mess with a massive deficit and debt. His government never had the fortitude to follow through and take the actions needed to get Canada into the black.

His hatred is especially reserved for the media. He used invective to criticize the Canadian Press, the Montreal Gazette, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, etc. He claims to have received worse press than Adolf Hitler.

One is reminded of Diefenbaker’s own paranoia and hatred of the press. At a Tory convention in Toronto in 1962, Diefenbaker attacked the “servile press,” and singled out individual members of the media for personal attack. In the past, the press had been kind to the populist from the West, but en masse the media turned against him when he spewed forth venom against them.

Those who still support Mulroney’s version of history and his legacy, such as Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton, can put all the spin they want on the Mulroney years, but it will be a monumental task to recast his tainted image and convince Canadians he was actually one of their best PMs.