Flashback Friday (on a Monday): Brian Mulroney
Time to dedicate a Flashback Friday post to a Canadian politician of importance in our history. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has many legacies, some of which are positive and many of which are negative. What makes Mulroney such an interesting figure to examine lies in his dramatic rise and fall as prime minister. He came in on the peak of electoral and political success and left on the lowest of lows. While some politicians who leave office on less than favourable terms see an improvement in how the country views them, Mulroney has struggled to improve his image in a country that is still quite frigid towards him. His actions on the GST, Meech Lake, free trade and much more had an enormous impact on the country.
Martin Brian Mulroney was born in 1939 in Baie-Comeau, Quebec. He attended university, graduating with degrees in political science and law. Very active in Quebec society, Mulroney made his political ambitions known at a young age. He participated in model parliaments in university and served as Vice President of the Conservative Students’ Federation. Mulroney also served as a student advisor to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, something his friends laughed about when he told them. After graduation he began practising law at a prominent law firm in Montreal, while continuing to further his conservative political ties. He gained further attention as a member of the Cliche Commission which examined violence and corruption in the construction industry. This combined with his previous organizing and fundraising for Conservative party efforts made him a potential leader by 1976.
While building his career, Mulroney married Mila Pivnicki in 1973. At the time Pivnicki was 19 and Mulroney 34. Together they had four children. The most annoying and talentless of the bunch is of course eTalk host Ben Mulroney, but I digress. Also during this time period, Mulroney’s father passed away. This placed a burden on Brian to lead his family from that point forward.
Mulroney’s decision to seek the leadership of the federal Conservative Party in 1976 seems preposterous by today’s standards. He did not hold a seat in parliament and had zero political experience. There was no question he had the knowledge for the position and his training as a lawyer would benefit him as a public speaker. But outside of Quebec he was virtually unknown and he ultimately lost to Joe Clark. Mulroney returned to the private sector once again, instead of contesting a seat in the next federal election, which would seem to be an obvious move for a man intent upon becoming leader. However the situation worked out for Mulroney.
In 1983 Mulroney once again threw his name in contention for leadership of the Tories. Joe Clark who saw brief success, had let it slip though his grasp. Feeling he had lost the support of his colleagues, Clark called a leadership review and convention. While he contested it, Clark was in a difficult position. Mulroney conversely, benefited from being the only truly bilingual candidate of the group. His Quebec heritage would be a major asset to the party. In 1976 Mulroney had come off very slick and elitist and worked hard to soften that image in 1983. He was successful and beat Clark to become leader of the opposition.
In his short tenure as leader of the opposition, Mulroney was very successful. He created an image of a smart, articulate and competent future leader. While Clark was saddled with the unfortunate reality of running against Trudeau, Mulroney had to compete against Prime Minister John Turner, who held the title by virtue of his selection as Liberal party leader. Although Turner later displayed enormous skill and knowledge, in 1984 he was thumped by Mulroney in parliament and the subsequent election campaign. On September 4, 1984 Mulroney led the Conservatives to a commanding win in the election, dominating both the seat and vote counts.
This is where we first see Mulroney at the pinnacle of political success. He had constructed the largest electoral landslide in Canadian political history, winning both a majority of seats and votes. This was done through a coalition of support which stretched from Atlantic Canada through Quebec and Ontario and into the Prairies. Another significant aspect of Mulroney’s win was the dramatic end this signified for the Liberal machine which had governed Canada with only one interruption since 1963. Mulroney had unlimited potential as he moved into 24 Sussex Drive.
His time as Prime Minister is fairly well known. He enacted the GST, to the dislike of many Canadians. He was involved in the fight over free trade for much of his time in office, fighting the 1988 election upon the issue. His endeavours in constitutional reform are legendary and include Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord referendum. He battled with Quebec over sovereignty. He climbed into bed with both President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as he navigated foreign policy. And he did this while trying to balance the competing interests within the coalition that had afforded him such grand electoral success.
We all know the remainder of the story. The Conservative party fortunes eventually began to wain and it was evident defeat was coming. The economic slump the country entered in the 1990s only compounded the situation. Polls showed Mulroney’s approval ratings well below what was needed for a sitting prime minister to continue in their position. What Trudeau faced in 1984, Mulroney faced in 1993. While the story could have ended there, the results of the 1993 federal election doomed Mulroney with the legacy as the leader which drove the Conservative party into the ground. The party emerged from that election with just 2 seats. It is hard to fathom a situation worse than what the party experienced. While there are other factors which contributed to the defeat (including the shortcomings of Mulroney’s successor) he can not escape blame for what occurred.
Some historians and academics have argued it takes two decades to accurately asses the impact an outgoing leader had on their country (how they came up with that number, I will never know). Nevertheless, Mulroney has been retired for just about that length of time, and favour has yet to start warming towards him. Perhaps he is doomed to a legacy which looks upon him with scorn and contempt.
Hindsight gives us the benefit of seeing that Mulroney was the last of his kind (or perhaps the only one of his kind). No prime minister since has come close to building the grand coalition that propelled him to two large electoral wins. The sad reality is that there appears to be no chance of that occurring anytime soon… or at all. Should current and future leaders look to Mulroney for guidance as they seek that elusive and seemingly unattainable majority? Absolutely. But with the conditions that are present today it is not likely his strategy would have worked beyond 1988. So while Brian Mulroney deals with a country still cursing his name (I resist the urge to mention Karlheinz Schreiber) he can bask in the memory of knowing he could be the last prime minister to ever win a majority government with a majority of the vote. Whether that brings him any solace is a totally different question.