Brian Mulroney is back

Maclean’s Archives: The former PM is out of purgatory and only too happy to tell Canadians (and Stephen Harper) what real leadership is about

Fred Lum/CP

Sept. 4 marks the 30th anniversary of Brian Mulroney’s first election as prime minister. From our archives, Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes on the former prime minister: 

His large, impressive head swims into view, as he makes his unhurried way through the luncheon crowd assembling outside the hall of a Fredericton conference centre. That jaw line, which once seemed cut from granite, now looks more moulded from clay. Even with its edges softened by age, though, you would know the profile anywhere. His silver-grey hair is immaculate. The rich hue and perfect drape of his blue suit set him apart—no offence to the menswear purveyors of the New Brunswick capital—from the local businessmen and provincial politicians pressing in to shake his hand, share an old campaign anecdote, and maybe pose for a photo. But what really triggers the memories, good and bad, is his voice. Its bass notes don’t so much cut through as rumble beneath the conversational din. The plummy laugh penetrates to every corner.

And Brian Mulroney has been laughing a lot lately. His one-day, mid-November visit to Fredericton—where he delivered a speech at the lunch, met privately with the provincial government’s cabinet, and spoke to students at St. Thomas University before a reception at its Brian Mulroney Hall—was typical of his extraordinary 2012. At 73, Mulroney spent the year being feted on the 25th anniversary of his Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, consulted on Quebec by the Prime Minister, who once shunned him, and even being called “a classy individual” by Justin Trudeau. Can it really be less than three years since Justice Jeffrey J. Oliphant’s commission of inquiry found that Mulroney behaved “inappropriately” in taking envelopes containing hundreds of thousands in secret cash payments from a certain German-Canadian arms lobbyist?

The notorious Karlheinz Schreiber’s name was scarcely whispered around Mulroney’s many high-profile public appearances in 2012. As well, Stephen Harper’s 2007 edict to Conservative MPs and senators that they must avoid contaminating contact with the embattled former prime minister—Mulroney’s loyalists called it a “fatwa”—has long since lapsed. There was Harper’s own sit-down with Mulroney last spring. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made a point last fall of telling the media he’d be seeing him. Foreign Minister John Baird, according to a spokesman, consults with him “from time to time.” Asked in an interview if this official embrace comes as a relief after what some called, in the dark days of the Oliphant inquiry, his “excommunication,” Mulroney laughs a slow, low, emphatic “ha, ha, ha.” “How,” he asks, “can you excommunicate from a party a former leader who had the greatest victories since John A. Macdonald, its founder?”

Nobody at the Fredericton Champions of Education Luncheon is inclined to deny him the glory of his two majority election wins. Mulroney is on hand to deliver the keynote in honour of his old friend and ally James Ross. A New Brunswick businessman and philanthropist, Ross was among the early supporters of Mulroney’s bid to become Conservative leader and prime minister. Later, he was one of eight so-called “GST senators” Mulroney appointed in 1990, exploiting a never-before-used prime-ministerial power to expand the upper chamber, in order to pass the Goods and Services Tax. Mulroney lauds Ross in his signature extravagant style. “I view him as one of nature’s gentlemen,” he says, “whose contribution to New Brunswick and Canada, to the well-being of our great nation, has few parallels.”

That’s how he holds forth. The nation is ever great. Its challenges are always momentous. The men and women he admires are unfailingly magnificent. The burden of leadership—a frequent theme—is unrelentingly heavy. The reward for hoisting it, however, is nothing less than history’s blessing. But he always sets up the serious stuff with self-deprecating jokes. In an era when the bar for political rhetoric in Canada is set drearily low, his retro combination of schtick and grandiloquence catches many crowds by surprise.

In Fredericton, they howl at his warm-up yarn about of how, during his winning 1983 run for the Tory leadership, with Jim Ross driving him around New Brunswick in a camper van, he’d take his pants off between stops to save the crease, and once forgot to put them back on before stepping out to meet a throng of Tories—most of them elderly ladies, naturally. But moments later he’s unspooling weighty quotes on the nature of leadership from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Zhou Enlai and D’Arcy McGee. “Time,” Mulroney concludes, “is the ally of leaders who place the defence of principle ahead of the pursuit of popularity.”

To whom could he possibly be alluding? Mulroney feints at excluding himself from these reflections, saying it takes 50 or even 100 years to sort out the truly brave leaders from the timorous second-raters. But then he slides quickly into unabashed boasting about how, as prime minister from 1984 to 1993, he stoutly ignored opinion polls between elections, ordering his cabinet never to consider the government’s popularity in making their decisions. “Political capital is meant, not to be hoarded, but to be spent in great causes for our nation,” he says. “Now, no one can say I didn’t spend mine.”

It’s hard to argue with that claim. Mulroney paid heavily for his most audacious moves, whether pushing through tax reform and the hated GST, negotiating and running for re-election in 1988 on the Canada-U.S. trade deal, or trying, and failing miserably, to reform the Constitution with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. This track record, along with his old-school showmanship, propelled his 2012 tour, putting his big, smiling face behind podiums and in front of standing ovations in, among other cities, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.

Mulroney revivalism is also cleverly promoted by a tenacious coterie of loyalists, who sometimes refer to him, among themselves, as “MBM,” for Martin Brian Mulroney. Key among them is Robin Sears, a former national director of the NDP, now a communications and policy consultant with Ottawa-based Earnscliffe Strategy Group, who handles the media around his public events. Another stalwart, L. Ian MacDonald, who was Mulroney’s main speechwriter during much of his heyday in the 1980s, tirelessly buffs his old boss’s image. As editor of Inside Policy, a journal launched last fall, MacDonald published a laudatory free-trade anniversary package in the inaugural issue, with a vintage shot of Mulroney (alongside Ronald Reagan) beaming on the cover.

But Mulroney’s acolytes wouldn’t get far without something compelling to peddle. Jonathan Malloy, chairman of the political science department at Carleton University in Ottawa, says renewed interest in Mulroney stems largely in the way his bravura manner, and the policy record welded to it, contrasts with his current successor at 24 Sussex Drive. “Mulroney is a mirror image of Harper in so many ways,” Malloy says. “If Harper wants big change—and I think he does—it’s done in that incremental, quiet, understated way. Mulroney was all about big vision and hyperbole.”

For his own part, Mulroney doesn’t explicitly spell out that contrast. But he is delighted in an interview to briskly check off his government’s accomplishments—free trade, tax reform, the Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty, joining the Organization of American States, imposing stiffer sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and he can go on if permitted. “I look at it,” he says, “with all the imperfections in mind and say, this was not incrementalism.”

New Brunswick is a good place to get reacquainted with the Mulroney aura. Although he was born in little Baie-Comeau, Que., his parents sent him at 14 to Chatham, N.B., to attend the private St. Thomas High School. He cultivated lasting links to the province, just as he did to Nova Scotia, where he later attended St. Francis Xavier University. As a result, Maritime Tories tend to greet him as the next thing to a local boy made good. So warm is the mood at the Fredericton luncheon that a reporter’s questions about Mulroney’s scandals meet with scowls.

His old friend Ross prefers to chat about the good fights, like passing the GST against stiff Liberal opposition. “Brian was very stoic,” he remembers, “in his determination to do what was right.” Pressed on how he felt later about the Schreiber revelations, Ross winces, and then reaches for a cross-border parallel. “Think of Bill Clinton,” he says. “He went through a down time and he’s one of the most respected politicians right now.” Those envelopes of cash, though. “It was troubling,” Ross concedes. “But he had so many great qualities. That’s how I approach it. None of us are perfect.”

Mulroney’s old pals aren’t alone in weighing his record in that generous way. At St. Thomas U, a red-brick liberal arts campus, students waiting for his late-afternoon talk seem barely aware of any ambivalence surrounding the reputation of the most famous graduate of the old Catholic high school that was their university’s precursor. Many are studying with political science professor Tom Bateman, who sees Mulroney’s Schreiber entanglement as a footnote. “That’s not the most important thing that attaches to him as a person,” Bateman says. “It’s the policy.”

Mulroney arrives late after his closed meeting with the provincial Tory cabinet. When he gets rolling, after his customary ice-breaker jokes, the lofty tone of his set-piece lunch text—all those quotations from eminent figures—is gone. A more relaxed Mulroney slides naturally, perhaps unintentionally, into a theme few visiting politicians would explore in front of a group of bright-eyed undergraduates—the deep satisfactions of wielding unencumbered power.

He starts by noting that Donald Savoie, the University of Moncton public administration professor, has written that a Canadian prime minister with a House majority has fewer checks on his power than the leader of any comparable Western democracy. “The prime minister,” Mulroney concurs, “has unfettered power.” Far from hinting there might be anything wrong with that, he regales the students with stories about getting his way, highlighting episodes that might appeal to idealistic youth. He tells them how, when he realized Nelson Mandela’s plight was being ignored, he used the Commonwealth’s clout to put the then-imprisoned anti-apartheid leader’s cause “back on the front burner.” He moves on to how, when he was anxious to secure a Canada-U.S. treaty to combat acid rain, he leveraged his personal bond with then-president Reagan to overcome resistance in Washington.

Which brings him to a broader point: any Canadian prime minister must not only nurture the U.S. president’s friendship, he must let the world know about it. “Look,” he explains, “one of the main instruments of your strength is if you’re perceived as having influence in the Oval Office.” He illustrates this with another story, one from the very last day of negotiations on the Canada-U.S. trade deal in 1987. James Baker, the U.S. treasury secretary who was heading the American bargaining team, called him to say talks had stalled. Mulroney replied that he would have to phone his friend Reagan at Camp David then. “You mention that,” he says, grinning roguishly, “I want to tell you, the Americans, they’re transfixed.” (So are the St. Thomas students.) Baker got the deal finalized, needless to say, within the hour.

And that, kids, is why you gotta cultivate your connections. But one last point. Without mentioning Harper by name, Mulroney caps his reminiscing on U.S. relations by observing that Canada, in his opinion, these days lacks the inside-Washington credibility that ultimately secured his trade deal. “You try to get that agreement down there now,” he says, “you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that done!”

Mulroney connects better in person than on a TV screen, where his already outsized qualities can be unflatteringly magnified. “He stands at the centre of a room and commands it,” says economics professor Tom Velk, chairman of the North American studies programs at McGill University in Montreal. “Everybody goes there, even if they don’t like him. He’s like the Pope, laying on hands.” Mulroney’s voice vibrating at low frequencies on the phone is, if anything, even more potent. He’s famous for his calls to not only friends, but also political adversaries, especially when they’re going through tough times. A close confidant says he remains today as assiduous about placing those calls as ever.

Coping with Mulroney’s unignorable presence has never been a simple task for Harper. After all, the Reform party, in which Harper first rose to prominence, was born largely as a western populist revolt against the man. Yet by the time Harper was leading Reform’s successor party, the Canadian Alliance, making peace with Progressive Conservatives still devoted to Mulroney was his top priority. Thus, in his first speech in the House as Alliance leader in 2002, Harper tactically praised Mulroney, extending an olive branch. The following year, Mulroney threw his considerable weight behind merger talks that led Harper and then-Tory leader Peter MacKay, son of Mulroney’s old cabinet minister Elmer MacKay, to unite the right under a new Conservative banner. Mulroney went on to advise Harper privately on how to win power in 2006.

It all fell apart the next year. In the course of fighting extradition to Germany, Schreiber disclosed details of his former ties to Mulroney—including the cash payments. While Mulroney denied any wrongdoing, he admitted to taking envelopes stuffed with $225,000 at two meetings, saying Schreiber hired him to line up support abroad for a possible UN purchase of German armoured vehicles. Harper outlawed caucus contact with Mulroney and appointed Oliphant to probe the mess. The former judge’s 2010 report would call Mulroney’s dealings with Schreiber “inappropriate,” and conclude “both wanted to conceal the fact that the transactions had occurred between them.”

But Carleton’s Malloy says Oliphant’s findings only confirmed, to Mulroney’s enemies, what they had long suspected, while leaving his allies room to stand by him. “It came down to one word,” he says. “Mulroney’s behaviour wasn’t illegal, it was ‘inappropriate.’ ” Not so damning as to preclude another comeback. And Malloy counts at least three previous major rebounds. Mulroney had bounced back from losing the 1976 Tory leadership to Joe Clark by beating him in the 1983 rematch. He sank deep in the polls before the 1988 election, then surged late to win that epic campaign over Canada-U.S. free trade. He was implicated in a Schreiber-related scandal in 1997, then won a lawsuit against the federal government that seemed to vindicate him.

Mulroney says he never doubted he would return again after the Oliphant inquiry. “Was it pleasant? No. But was it in any way going to be fatal or lethal? Absolutely not,” he says. He continues to cast taking money from Schreiber as a lapse in judgment rather than an ethical failure. “If I had my life to live over again, certainly, Mr. Schreiber, now that we know exactly who he was and what he was up to, would never darken my door.” As for Harper’s decision to make him persona non grata, Mulroney says, “I just took it as a fact that Schreiber was smart in the sense that he tied Harper into it.”

Mulroney’s banishment was never formally rescinded; it eased over the years to the point where it’s obviously no longer in force. The appointment of Nigel Wright as Harper’s chief of staff in 2010 helped. Back in 1984, Wright worked as a junior aide in Mulroney’s Prime Minister’s Office while on leave from the University of Toronto law school—a heady formative experience. He went on to become a deal maker at the investment firm Onex Corp., and a Tory backroom player in Toronto. Along the way, Wright forged a close friendship with another young Onex executive, Anthony Munk, son of Barrick Gold Corp. founder and chairman Peter Munk. Mulroney happens to sit on Barrick’s board and be an old friend of the senior Munk.

By 2012, Mulroney was fully welcome again in the corridors of power. After he spoke last spring at the Foreign Affairs department’s headquarters in Ottawa on the 21st anniversary of his Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty, Baird hosted him at a private supper. When the Public Policy Forum gathered the five living former PMs for a testimonial dinner in Toronto last May, Mulroney stole the show with lines like, “I’d love to be prime minister again—the truth is, I miss the adulation.” His old haunt, Montreal’s iconic Ritz-Carleton, trumpeted his attendance, along with the likes of Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco, at the hotel’s 100th anniversary bash; Mila Mulroney wore gold satin.

Mulroney’s posse often did their part, sometimes discreetly. When the University of Toronto’s prestigious Munk School of Global Affairs hosted a symposium on the Canada-U.S. trade accord’s milestone last fall—held the same day as a glittery tribute dinner to Mulroney at the nearby Royal Ontario Museum—the school referred media questions on the organizing of the event to none other than L. Ian MacDonald. When Mulroney spoke at Ottawa’s iconic Chateau Laurier last June at a pharmaceutical industry dinner, the key behind-the-scenes organizer was Bill Pristanski, an Ottawa public affairs consultant who served as Mulroney’s executive assistant for four years in the 1980s.

That Ottawa speech, marking the 25th anniversary of the Mulroney government’s landmark reform of drug patent protections, had the atmosphere of a triumphant homecoming. Some MPs and Tory aides in the room—those elected or hired long after Mulroney’s era—were seeing him in full flight for the first time. For others, seasoned partisans, veteran journalists and long-serving bureaucrats, it was like old times. Taking the podium to a prolonged standing ovation, he played out the funny stories like a fly fisherman patiently reeling in the catch. A well-worn one about Chubby Power, the legendary Quebec Liberal fixer of old. A newer one, making light of indignities he suffered when he was gravely ill with pancreatitis in 2005. The room convulsed at the punch lines.

Then he switched gears, using the drug-patent anniversary to go deep on the importance of innovation in a modern economy. Today’s Tories nodded as he told of how, back in the day, Liberals fought him on extending patent protections. “The opposition was, and this will surprise you,” he said, “highly emotional and bitterly partisan.” But he also slipped in a sharp criticism of the Conservative government for allowing other countries to move ahead with better intellectual property protections, and chastised the drug industry for failing to do enough to turn research into new business. He urged ambition and risk-taking.

When the applause finally died down, a rookie Conservative MP and a young Tory strategist at one table agreed they’d seen nothing like it from the politicians now running Ottawa. Mulroney is fully aware of how he went over. “There were a whole flock of Conservative MPs there, and they were blown away,” he says, scoffing: “They’re used to what passes in Ottawa now for oratory and humour.”

Those experiencing his sunny showmanship for the first time, though, might have trouble imagining how dark he was capable of turning in times past. But it was in the same Chateau Laurier—in very different days, just before he exited politics as a deeply unpopular figure in 1993—that Mulroney delivered a 65-minute diatribe, mainly against those who had scuttled his Meech Lake constitutional gambit, especially Pierre Trudeau. His litany of resentment that day was so sulphurous that few who were in the room will forget it.

that other Mulroney, the one preoccupied with settling accounts, isn’t entirely gone. In another major speech, delivered in Calgary last Oct. 23, he aired his grievance against a different old nemesis. Preston Manning’s Reform party rose under the famous slogan “the West wants in,” and decimated the Tories across Western Canada in the 1993 election. With Mulroney gone, the insurgency wiped out one-half of his vaunted Quebec-West coalition (the Bloc Québécois simultaneously erased the other). “The West was already in,” Mulroney griped in Calgary, Reform’s capital, “and had been since the day our government took office.”

He pointed to his pro-Western policies, like free trade and privatizing Petro-Canada, and to the powerful Albertans in his cabinet, including heavyweights Don Mazankowski and Joe Clark. The speech sparked another round of bitter argument, mostly in Alberta, about what Reform really stood for, and whether Mulroney had a point.

The spat served as a reminder that Harper presides over a party still divided to the marrow between Conservatives who cleave to Manning’s populism and Tories who retain a taste for Mulroney’s elite deal-making. Offered a chance to credit Reform in some respect, Mulroney deadpans his bottom line on Manning’s contribution: “He elected Jean Chrétien three times.” He observes that Harper has little time for the social-conservative issues that many Reformers once felt strongly on, like abortion and capital punishment. “They’re not even allowed to talk about that anymore,” he says. More broadly, Mulroney rejects the proposition that the restored Conservative brand is a hybrid of his PCs and Manning’s Reformers, describing the new party as “pretty much the Progressive Conservatives.”

Manning remains Mulroney’s antithesis—the insistent, keening voice set against the insinuating, dulcet one. Asked in an interview about Mulroney’s claim to have fully represented the West all along—especially by passing free trade, a traditional Prairie-farmer demand—Manning shoots back. “His conversion on free trade, in the Western view, was fairly late in the day and had nothing to do with the Western demands,” Manning says. “It was the Montreal crowd that got together and pushed him into it.”

In any case, Manning adds, Mulroney’s failure to shrink the federal deficit by cutting spending cost him any chance of being seen as a true conservative in the West. “The fiscal part,” he says, “was probably our biggest thing.”

Another big thing was a difference in political style. Mulroney’s power was always rooted in his ability to win and hold the loyalty of those he dealt with directly, whether foreign heads of state or backbench MPs. Manning also commanded considerable personal loyalty, but as a genuine populist, he relied more on persuading rank-and-file Reformers and the party’s core voters, mainly in the West, that he listened to them and so spoke for them. “Mulroney would say we just wanted to take a vote, and whatever they wanted, give it to them,” Manning says. “My argument is, no, you come up with your best judgment and try to carry the majority. You don’t just assume they can’t understand it, or you can bluff them into supporting it, or just go ahead and hope they don’t notice.”

Even now, Mulroney and Manning represent a glaring contrast in operating methods. At his Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy, Manning aims to influence and train the next generation of Conservative politicians. He talks of going “upstream” to find and mould aspiring local pols who might eventually rise to provincial or federal prominence. From his Montreal office as a senior partner at the international law firm Norton Rose, Mulroney travels the world—in recent weeks to Madrid, London and Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, he’s in Paris to give a speech at a convention. When he’s in Canada, he isn’t teaching beginners.

Last spring, the Prime Minister sought him out for advice on the shifting Quebec political landscape. Harper’s Conservatives hold just five seats in Mulroney’s home province and one-time electoral stronghold. When the two spoke privately at a Montreal hotel, the separatist Parti Québécois’s return to power in Quebec City, which came about in the fall provincial election, was a looming worry. “I can’t relate any of that conversation,” Mulroney says. “But generally speaking there’s no reason why a federalist party, be it the Conservatives or the NDP, can’t hive off a huge part of the Quebec vote.”

The Liberals, too, might soon be a factor in Quebec again. Mulroney has said those who underestimate Justin Trudeau, the front-runner for the third-place party’s leadership, “do so at their peril.” Trudeau responded that he was “flattered” by that assessment, adding, “I think it was a very nice thing to say by a very classy individual.” Such comments from non-Tories are perhaps even more remarkable than the rehabilitation of Mulroney’s status among his own flock. When Baird hosted that private dinner for Mulroney last spring, the select guest list included, along with Conservatives and public servants, the Liberals’ Bob Rae and the Greens’ Elizabeth May. Mulroney says he was gratified to see them both.

His true believers nod that everything is working out as they knew it must. Author Bob Plamondon, a key chronicler of contemporary Conservatism in books like Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics, credits “the passage of time” with taking the sting out of what he impatiently dismisses as the overhyped “Karlheinz Schreiber mess” and with healing the rift caused by what he calls “the Preston Manning vanity party.” “The good is enduring,” Plamondon says of Mulroney’s policies on trade, taxation and more. “The things that caused him some measure of unpopularity are not enduring.”

The undergrads at St. Thomas University, though, don’t seem much attuned to that enduring policy legacy. They respond to his personality. When a student ventures a question touching on current politics, Mulroney pretends for a moment to be taken aback. “I’m a statesman,” he says in feigned protest, “I’m no longer a politician—a grubby politician.” Of course he laughs heartily as he says it. The young audience is laughing with him. Like every crowd he comes before, they’ve intuited from the moment of being enveloped by his voice that Brian Mulroney, even now, is more a politician than any other they are likely ever to encounter.

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