Brian Mulroney is Having a Moment

The former prime minister has been expressing his views on a range of thorny problems from China to COVID-19.

14th G7 Summit 1988, Toronto, Wikimedia Commons

Paul Deegan

July 2, 2020

Brian Mulroney is having a moment, and it’s not a senior moment. He is stirring things up and speaking out on the most important public policy challenges facing our country. It is time to reflect upon his domestic and foreign policy achievements as prime minister and, more importantly, to listen to what this wise elder stateman has to say today.

While Mulroney’s approval sank to just 12 percent eight years after his election as prime minister, the lowest of any Canadian prime minister, he will go down as one of our great PMs. He was and is, at age 81, a visionary and daring bet-the-house, big ideas leader – in both domestic and foreign policy. As he once said, “I have always tried to do what I thought would be right for Canada in the long term, not what would be politically popular in the short term.”

In domestic policy, there is no question that he made very bold and politically unpopular decisions that have had a positive and lasting impact on our economy. He inherited a fiscal situation that was unsustainable. Through a combination of reduced program spending, new taxes, and privatizations, he succeeded in steering Canada away from a fiscal cliff. When he took office in 1984, the non-interest deficit was $12 billion. When he left in 1993, it was in surplus.

At the same time, Mulroney made significant structural changes to make Canadian business more competitive. He privatized more than 20 crown corporations, including Air Canada and most of CN’s non-rail assets – paving the way for its eventual privatization in 1995.

He replaced the Manufacturers Sales Tax, a hidden 13.5 percent tax which disadvantaged Canadian exporters, with a 7 percent consumption tax: the Goods and Services Tax, which was inapplicable to exports. And he deregulated the transportation, telecom, financial services, and energy sectors.

Mulroney once said that successive governments were picking the flowers planted by his finance ministers Michael Wilson and Don Mazankowski. There is no question that his policies laid the groundwork for Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who continued wisely down the path of sound fiscal management and privatization.

Mulroney developed close and important personal friendships in Washington – not only with fellow conservative soulmates like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – but with liberals like Ted Kennedy. I was an intern in Senator Kennedy’s office in 1990, and often heard exceptionally high praise for Mulroney in that office. These relationships allowed Mulroney to conclude truly landmark free trade and environmental protection agreements with the United States.

In global affairs, Canada punched above its weight under Mulroney. He had an acute understanding of the benefits of being a middle power, and he wielded that power deftly to lead on the world stage because he believed that Canadian leadership mattered. Like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and Pope John Paul II, Brian Mulroney was a prominent player on the international stage.

Three foreign policy achievements stand out. His government persuaded the United Nations to launch what was at the time the greatest single humanitarian relief effort in history – saving some 7 million Ethiopian lives. He and his foreign minister Joe Clark played a pivotal role in rallying the international community to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. It is not an exaggeration to say that Nelson Mandela might have died in prison if it were not for Mulroney and Clark. And Helmut Kohl thanked just three foreign leaders for the role they played in German reunification: George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Brian Mulroney.

I have met Mulroney a few times since he left office, and I have been impressed. A number of years ago, I took our then-ten-year-old son Jacob to Montreal for a weekend. After seeing the Canadiens play, we ran into Mr. Mulroney, who I had not seen in a few years. As I started to introduce myself, he cut me off, extended his hand and said, “Paul, you don’t have to introduce yourself; you went to Loyola High School, you worked at the White House, and you’re a friend of L. Ian MacDonald.” He then turned to Jacob and said, “your grandfather (Pierre Trudeau’s pollster Martin Goldfarb) is a great guy, but he should have been a Progressive Conservative.” Needless to say, Jacob was thrilled.

In recent years, Mulroney has been generous in reaching across partisan lines – offering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government advice on trade issues. And he continues to advance big ideas to make Canada and the world a better place. In a recent interview with Robert Fife in the Globe and Mail, he called for an “immediate and urgent rethink” of the Canada-China relationship. He disagreed with the view of 19 prominent Canadians, including two of his former chiefs of staff, who signed a letter urging Prime Minister Trudeau to free Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou and bring about the return of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. And he stressed the importance of preserving our relations with Canada’s friends in the Five Eyes alliance –the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand – and our access to its shared intelligence.

In the same newspaper, Mulroney articulated a clear, coherent, confident, and concise “Agenda for Canadian Greatness”. The agenda includes everything from a dramatic increase in immigration to an objective of 75 million people, so that we can achieve our full potential, to a powerful assertion of sovereignty across our North.

He concluded by stating, “Incrementalism builds increments. Bold initiatives build nations.” He’s not wrong on this point. This is Brian Mulroney’s moment, and we Canadians should listen to this vigorous octogenarian, who is offering some of the boldest and freshest thinking in the country.

Paul Deegan is CEO of Deegan Public Strategies in Toronto and was Deputy Executive Director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton White House.