Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

Mulroney in History

September 1997

We just can't seem to escape Mulroney's sneeringly arrogant presence. This week, the Globe published a speech of his in which he tried to justify himself and his reign, claiming that he had been one of the most successful Prime Ministers Canada has had. This is part of a continuing campaign by himself and his cronies to establish him as someone who will be remembered well in history. The most inescapable of these cronies has been William Thorsell, editor of the Globe. Ever since Mulroney retired, there have been a couple of articles a year in his newspaper claiming that Mulroney was a great Prime Minster and will be highly regarded by history.

But even Thorsell is starting to sound less convinced. In a column in late August, he finally admitted that the "elite" were largely to blame for Canada's low opinion of its politicians and, specifically, its opposition to accommodating Quebec (given that Thorsell runs the most elitist paper in Canada, this must be considered a mea culpa). In the course of this article, he admitted that the federal government's hectoring, inflexible and arrogant approach to pushing through the Meech Lake accord was one of the primary causes of this popular resentment (and the consequent failure of the accord). Thorsell could not bring himself to admit it, but we all know that this approach was personally shaped and directed by Mulroney himself. Thorsell has also, indirectly, been forced to admit that other aspects of the Mulroney legacy were disastrous. In an editorial about high taxes, the Globe's editorial board admitted that the years 1985-1990 - the heart of Mulroney's rule - were the period in which taxes were increased most dramatically in recent Canadian history. Finally, Thorsell is on record as opposing an obsessive concern with eliminating inflation through high interest rates - which was a fundamental policy of the Mulroney government, and which exaggerated the effects of the disastrous recession of the early 90's, from which we still haven't fully recovered.

But what will history say? The essence of Mulroney's argument is that his deep unpopularity is a passing phenomenon which will be forgotten by historians. On the other hand, his accomplishments are significant and will have a lasting positive impact on Canada, and these will be remembered by historians. The primary accomplishment he claims is the Free Trade agreement. Other accomplishments he claims are the establishment of a framework to get Quebec to sign the Constitution, the elimination of inflation, presiding over a period of growth and low unemployment, and achieving consecutive majorities. His contention that his deep unpopularity will not be remembered is probably true - unpopularity is rarely a factor when historians make their judgments, unless it had additional effects. So, let us take a look at these claims to see if they are justified.

Mulroney asserts that the Free Trade agreement ushered in a new age of free trade for Canada, and helped it adapt to the new economy. In fact, if we look back at the claims Mulroney made for Free Trade, we find that it has made little difference to Canada. The first claim was that it would create jobs. This has obviously not been the case - Canada's unemployment rate rose rapidly after the FTA was implemented, and has stayed that way ever since. Whether or not the FTA was responsible for this is a matter of debate - what is certain is that it did not have any positive effect on employment. The other claim was that it would protect Canada from arbitrary trade restrictions imposed by the U.S. in areas such as softwood lumber and grain. In this, it has been a complete failure. Whenever the Free Trade panel has ruled against U.S. measures, the U.S. has simply ignored it. The U.S. has continued to unjustly pressure Canada about exports, forcing us to make export-restricting deals in softwood, grain and various other commodities as if the FTA had never happened. As for NAFTA, Mulroney's other free trade deal, the stupidity of making a free trade deal between a first world and a third world country became apparent in Mexico's peso crisis, from which it is still barely recovering, and which threatened to drag down the other partners in the deal with it. So, it is unlikely that the FTA will be seen as any kind of substantial accomplishment by history.

Mulroney's other substantial accomplishment was the Meech Lake accord (and its successor, the Charlottetown agreement). His implied claim is that either a) Quebec will separate, in which case history will say he was right, and if only we'd listened and agreed to Meech Lake, Quebec would have stayed, or b) Quebec will stay because of a deal which is based on the Meech Lake accord, and he will be seen as the person who started the ball rolling. The problem with this scenario is that Mulroney is also primarily responsible for the rejection of the accord. As Thorsell was forced to admit, it was Mulroney's insistence on a quick deal that resulted in an accord that had flaws; Mulroney's insistence on not changing it that meant it could not be adapted to deal with objections; and most importantly, Mulroney's arrogance and contempt for the Canadian people which led to the spread and entrenchment of opposition to the accord. Equally significant, this popular resentment has continued even after the accord died - and this popular distaste for everything associated with Meech Lake (especially "distinct society") has continued to undermine all future attempts to get Quebec to buy into Canada. So, not only did Mulroney's initiative fail, it also poisoned the waters for any future attempt to reach an agreement with Quebec. If Quebec leaves, Mulroney will bear as much responsibility as anyone; if it stays, it will be despite the poisoned legacy he left behind (and we won't even discuss the fact that he is directly responsible for Lucien Bouchard). So it is unlikely that history will look kindly on his role in the Quebec question, either.

As for the defeat of inflation, there is simply nothing to boast about. Every industrialized nation defeated inflation at about the same time. Many of them did it with more liberal monetary policies than Canada. The defeat of inflation was primarily the result of changes in the global economy. On the other hand, the fact that Mulroney let John Crow hike up interest rates led directly to the severe unemployment which continues to haunt Canada. That these interest rates were excessive is easily demonstrated by the fact that the Canadian dollar climbed rapidly above its usual level (below 80 cents U.S) to almost 90 cents U.S. The result was a rapid increase in interest payments on the debt, and therefore in the deficit; an increase in unemployment, which became uncoupled from the U.S. rate for the first time; and low growth. All of this was completely unnecessary, since inflation was dying of its own accord. The legacy of Mulroney's monetary policy was a permanently disabled economy and high debt. This will show up clearly in the historical statistics, so he is likely to find himself condemned by historians on this count, not praised.

The one area where Mulroney was truly remarkable was politics. His accomplishment in establishing the Conservative party in all regions and winning a massive majority in 1984 was impressive. Even more remarkable was the way he used the Meech Lake accord and the FTA as wedge issues to divide the Liberal party and secure himself a second majority (despite the fact that Canadians were starting to really dislike him). While these policies may have been practical failures, they were politically brilliant. Since the FTA was deeply controversial, supported by a strong core of voters, but opposed by both opposition parties, it enabled him to win a second majority by splitting the vote. It must be admitted that this kind of bold strategy appears to be far too frightening for any of our current crop of political leaders. Equally impressive was the fact that Mulroney managed to keep the very different members of his caucus (West, Ontario/Maritimes, Quebec) united despite their differences - and united behind his leadership despite the fact that he was clearly dragging the party down in popular support. Few other leaders could have accomplished this. Unfortunately for Mulroney, such political accomplishments are as ephemeral as unpopularity, and will be just as quickly forgotten by historians. The only part they are likely to remember is that he left a party that was almost completely wiped out at the polls in 1993 - he may have united the Conservative party, but he also almost led Canada's oldest party to complete destruction.

Despite the efforts of himself and his cronies, Mulroney's legacy in history is not going to be very impressive.

[Postscript: about a week after this was written, Jefferey Simpson wrote a column in the Globe in which he discussed the ongoing attempt to rescue Mulroney's reputation. It is gratifying to see that I started a trend!]

Sept. 24, 1997

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