Prime Minister Brian Mulroney bids farewell to dignitaries after an official visit to Andrews Airforce Base, Maryland, USA, in 1984. Wikipedia

Editorial: At his best when it counted

  • March 7, 2024

If posthumous praise could be turned into retroactive votes, the late Brian Mulroney might be poised for resurrection as Canada’s prime minister.

The nation-wide outpouring of accolades for “Muldoon,” as Mulroney was both affectionately and derisively known during his long political career, largely skipped the shattering debacle of his Progressive Conservative party’s collapse from successive majority governments to a mere two seats in the House of Commons. Canadians don’t speak ill of the dead even if they have spent decades bad-mouthing the now deceased in life.

Mulroney, of course, had handed the keys to the House and party leadership over to the ill-starred Kim Campbell by the time the roof caved in on election night in 1993. The wisdom of the day was that voters had passed stinging judgment not on Campbell the Progressive Conservative heir, but on the previous nine years of Mulroney in power. They could have been more vindictive only by sowing the earth with salt as the Romans purportedly did in defeated Carthage.

In fairness, vindication began well before death came for the former PM last week. Even die-hard partisans nursing long-ago grudges acknowledge his government’s two most far-sighted policy achievements — the GST and free trade  — have outlived memories of the stumbles, bumbles, gambler’s overreach and inexplicable low-grade jiggery-pokery that blighted the Mulroney years.

Free trade has become such an entrenched “Canadian value” that the current prime minister turned to Mulroney for counsel when the North American entente with the U.S. and Mexico had to be renegotiated with the protectionist Trump administration. Blended federal-provincial taxes on virtually all goods and services, despite the irritant of having to actually pay them, are recognized by all but uber libertarian cranks as a fair and effective way to turn consumption into shared revenue for the common good.

Yet both were virulently attacked a generation ago, and used to exploit electoral hostility to Progressive Conservative efforts such as the sandbagged constitutional renegotiations. The same nattering nabobs of anti-Mulroney negativism, once in power, led the country to within a percentage point of dissolution during the 1995 Quebec referendum. They were equally maladroit in handling Indigenous issues until Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a reconstituted version of the Mulroney Conservatives, got things back on track with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.

For Catholics, perhaps the gravest damage done to the broader program of the Mulroney years was largely an inside job effected by a handful of purists in the pro-life movement. They helped to kill legislation introduced in 1990 that would have recriminalized abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 Morgentaler decision. They decried as unacceptable “incrementalism” provisions of the bill that allowed abortion if doctors deemed pregnancy a threat to the mother’s life. The legislation’s foes on the pro-abortion side managed the split masterfully. It died on a tie vote in the Senate.

The defeat haunts us still. A Catholic prime minister, famously proud of his Irish Catholic roots and his days at St. Francis Xavier University, convinced his cabinet — including the resolutely pro-choice Kim Campbell — to expend large sums of political capital to protect the unborn. He House-managed the bill effectively enough to get it passed through the Commons by a 140-131 margin. He did so by invoking his mantra of not “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But for the perfectionists, bad was better than a good compromise. Bad, as was widely predicted at the time, left abortion politically stone dead. The legislative opening  in Morgentaler permitting Parliament to revive the issue was sealed like a tomb. Correlatively, if not causally, here we are 25 years later debating giving MAiD to the mentally ill.

During his public years, Brian Mulroney was a natural force of personality. His showman’s exuberance often undid him, particularly when he was only trying to help the very people who did him in. Yes, he, too, sinned and fell short of the glory of God, as St. Paul reminds us all have done. But history shows he led best when it counted. More, in the beginning and at the end, he was fundamentally a good man who fulfilled the Catholic obligations of faith, hope and charity.  What higher praise is needed?

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