Listening to Brian Mulroney: trade, tactics, environment, and more

John Geddes on the charismatic leader’s 2012 road show

Peter Bregg

In this week’s Maclean’s I write about Brian Mulroney’s surprising return to prominence in Canadian public life. The story was mostly prompted by a spate of major speeches the former prime minister, now 73, delivered last year. Mulroney’s 2012 road show seemed remarkably unhampered by the controversy that plagued him in office and dogged him long into retirement from active politics.

The larger-than-life performance style he brings to these events is something to behold—and he can barely contain his disdain for the timid, tentative speechmaking of the generation of Canadian politicians who came after him. But Mulroney also delivers content. So much, in fact, that I had space to barely touch on much of it in the story.

For a flavour of the subjects Mulroney tackles, and how he comes at them, here are four excerpts from key speeches.

Ottawa, March 13, 2012: In a speech at the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Mulroney gave a tutorial on tactics to mark the 21st anniversary of the landmark Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty:

And the question is, how was it done?

Well, we simply wouldn’t let go of it. We got in the Americans’ face about it at every bilateral meeting until they realized we were serious about it, that we meant it, and that we wouldn’t go away until we had dealt with it to our satisfaction…

But while we were talking to the Americans, we were taking action with the provinces and industry, implementing a “Clean Hands Policy” of leading from the front.

First, in February 1985… we got an agreement with the seven provinces east of Saskatchewan to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 50 percent, by 2.3 million tonnes from the base year levels of 1980 by 1994. We did this within only six months of taking office.

Then we told industry they had to clean up their act. For example, the INCO smelter at Sudbury was the biggest producer of SO2 emissions in Canada. When we told them they had to cut emissions by half, they told us they’d go out of business. But we held the line and guess what, they commercialized the sulphur and their profits went up instead!

There were two reasons for adopting a Clean Hands approach. First, it was the right thing to do. And second, it provided strong empirical evidence against the argument in Washington that the only reason we wanted an acid rain clean up was so that Canada could sell the US more clean hydro-electricity.

Ottawa, June 6, 2012: In a speech to the research-based pharmaceuticals industry, Mulroney talked about his own landmark drug-patent reforms, but also chided the current government on not doing enough for innovators, and linked that theme to expanding free trade:

Other countries have moved ahead of Canada offering better intellectual property protection for investors and manufacturers.  If we cannot compete effectively, we will inevitably fall behind.

It is not a static, global environment and the competition for more than $100 billion in annual R&D investments in pharmaceuticals is fierce.  And make no mistake, strong intellectual property protection works well for both innovation and generic drug manufacturers.

Canada may not yet top the charts when it comes to global standards for intellectual property but, with the pending copyright reforms and the flurry of trade negotiations now underway, we are definitely moving in the right direction.

The first crucial test will be the negotiations with the EU, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or CETA, which we are told will spur annual economic growth of some $12B in Canada. 

Toronto, Oct. 3, 2012: In a speech marking the anniversary of the finalization of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiations, he returned to the theme of making deals with Washington, stressing how to leverage top-level relationships:

 The powerful Treasury Secretary Jim Baker had been designated by the President to bring the negotiation to a successful conclusion. He was determined to deliver for his President and proved to be the right man at the right time…

At about 9:30 p.m. (on Oct. 3, 1987), Baker called me in my Langevin Block office in Ottawa to tell me that , while we were very close to an agreement, he doubted that he could get the dispute settlement mechanism because congressional leaders argued it would dilute their constitutional sovereignty in matters of international trade.

I thanked Baker and told him that, as the talks were now in danger of imminent collapse and failure, I was going to call President Reagan, then at Camp David, to ask him one question.

“And, what is that?” asked Baker.

“Well, Jim, I replied, “I’m going to ask the President how it is that the U.S. can negotiate a major nuclear reduction treaty with its worst enemy, the Soviet Union and can’t negotiate a free trade agreement with its best friend, Canada”.

“P.M.,” Baker replied, “can you give me 20 minutes?”

At about 10:00 pm that evening, Secretary Baker burst into the anteroom to his Treasury Office in Washington which was being used by the senior Canadian delegation. He flung a hand-written note on the table and declared “All right, you can have your goddamned dispute settlement mechanism. Now can we send the report to Congress!”

Calgary, Oct. 23, 2012:  At a dinner held by St. Francis Xavier University, his Nova Scotia alma mater, Mulroney waded into a favourite Stephen Harper theme—the need to diversify energy exports—but made more headlines by arguing that his 1984-1993 government was a staunch friend of western Canada:

We all know, however, that trade with the U.S. has more or less flatlined in recent years in the wake of the financial meltdown and the prolonged slump of the U.S. economy.

 We also know that the veto of the Keystone pipeline was an unwelcome decision for all in the energy sector and ran contrary to the spirit of our FTA. Equally, because it is going to a single (captive) market, our oil sells at a substantial discount to world prices.

That is why it is vital that Canada diversify some exports of energy, minerals and agri-food products, especially to those emerging markets that are growing at twice the rate of our more traditional markets. For that we need new infrastructure in Canada — pipelines and ports in particular — to broaden our market reach and complement our reliance on the U.S.

As important as the FTA was, it was part of a suite of policy prescriptions designed to bring the West into the Canadian mainstream. Twenty years ago, you often heard some people say: “The West wants in.”

The chant became part of the mythology of Canadian politics in which, like all myths, the truth became the first and most important victim.

And why?

Because, in fact, the West was already in, and had been since the day our government took office on Sept. 17, 1984…


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