In his autobiography, Keep True: A Life in Politics (University of Manitoba Press, $27.95, to be released on March 28), former Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley wrote that he was attending a meeting in London with Sir Francis Tombs, the head of Rolls Royce, which owned Bristol Aerospace Ltd., when he was confronted with the federal government’s apparent “toying” with the maintenance contract for the CF-18 jet. At the meeting hosted by Roy McMurtry, Canada’s High Commissioner, Tombs threatened to re-examine his company’s investment in smaller Canadian provinces, which “have too little political clout with Ottawa. It’s better for us to choose provinces like Québec or Ontario: they can pull the political strings.”
Angered by the assertion, Pawley fruitlessly attempted to reach Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by phone. On October 23, Pawley finally received a response. The premier relayed the rumours to Mulroney, reminding him of the tendering process. “‘Was it no longer being honoured?’ I asked. ‘Was politics superseding the above-board process that had been promised to prevent such abuse?’” According to Pawley, the prime minister responded in his “usual smooth, charming way. Had he not always been fair to the West? he asked. An uneasy chill raced up my spine. I replied, ‘Brian, all that may be fine, but I heard worrisome reports pertaining to the CF-18 contract.’”
Pawley’s chill was well-merited. All later reports indicated a decision had indeed been reached and Pawley and Manitoba were left out of the loop. Despite having a technologically superior and lower-costing bid, Bristol was denied the contract for political reasons — votes in Québec.
Pawley denounced the Mulroney government’s decision during a news conference. “Irritated, I advised Manitobans of my frustration and added, referring to the breach of Mulroney’s promise, ‘It’s one more example of the shaft. I cannot trust this man.’”
After flying to Ottawa the next day, Pawley received a less-than-kind welcome from the prime minister, who said he had heard Pawley’s “vulgar remarks,” promising that they “would be long remembered.”
This was another example of Mulroney’s “blarney” — attempting to turn the tables during an awkward moment when he knew quite well that he was in the wrong.
“It is this type of prime ministerial abuse that is provoking disillusionment with politics in Canada today ...” wrote Pawley. “The same abuse of power has been seen repeatedly in Mulroney’s successors.”
The awarding of the CF-18 contract to the Montréal company helps explain the present political situation in Canada. Coupled with the deeply-flawed Meech Lake Accord that spawned the Bloc Québeçois, the Bristol decision led to a nation divided along political, geographic and linguistic lines. After the CF-18 fiasco, the right in the West split into Reform and Conservative factions. “No other issue in contemporary times, outside the National Energy Program, aroused the fury of Western Canadians as much as the blatant unfairness of this decision,” commented Pawley in his book.
Today, the party of Mulroney no longer exists and the reinvented Conservatives are now led by a man who encouraged the split that was energized by the slogan, “The West Wants In.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a creature of the CF-18 fiasco and the Reform Party of Preston Manning, even though he now leads a minority Conservative government in the House of Commons.
Mulroney subsequently lost the trust of an entire region. And with the failure of the ill-advised Meech Lake Accord, he also lost the trust of Québecers, the very voters he courted in 1986 when he gave the CF-18 contract to Canadair.
Following the CF-18 announcement, Jim Carr wrote in a November 2, 1986, Free Press column: “Not only does the decision reflect bad judgement and poor economics, it also undermines the integrity of the tendering process and casts a shadow over the entire government of Canada.”
An editorial in the Lethbridge Herald on January 8, 1988, after Bristol received a spate of minor contracts meant to soften the pain, proclaimed, “No amount of patronizing removes the bitter after-taste of a decision that so fully highlights the potential for unequal treatment of provinces in Canada.”
The Manitoba caucus of the Mulroney government was apparently unaware that the process was flawed from the outset, and that Manitoba would be so brazenly double-crossed. A November 2, 1986, Free Press article reported that Wheat Board Minister Charlie Mayer “had tears in his eyes,” when Mulroney told his caucus about his decision. On the other hand, Health Minister Jake Epp, the senior politician from Manitoba, refused to believe what he was being told by the prime minister.
When I wrote an editorial about this slap in the face to Manitoba and the West, Mayer soon turned up in my office in a futile attempt to justify the decision to give the contract to Canadair, implying that “good news” for the province was just around the corner, and that the government had been generous to Western Canadian farmers. Despite his earlier tears, Mayer was spreading the gospel according to Mulroney, which I observed was done with little true enthusiasm. When he gave his message from the central party apparatus, Mayer asked if I believed Epp was a “eunuch” (his word), unable to intervene in Ottawa on behalf of Manitoba. He wasn’t a eunuch, I replied. But didn’t the Canadair decision show that Epp was powerless to convince the prime minister that Bristol deserved the contract? Mayer had no real answer, but to repeat that there was good news ahead for Manitoba.
What he should have realized was that there was no good news for the Conservatives in Western Canada due to the political manipulations of his leader. In the 1993 federal election, Mayer lost his seat to Jake Hoeppner, the first successful Reform Party candidate in Manitoba. The only solace Mayer had was that in the entire nation, only two Conservative candidates were elected to the House of Commons.
The legacy of the CF-18 fiasco is that the “crassest of political motivations,” as mentioned by Pawley, created the mistrust that completely changed the political landscape of a nation.