Brian Mulroney, born in 1939, 18th prime minister of Canada (1984-1993). Mulroney, who led the Progressive Conservative Party to election victories in 1984 and 1988, was prime minister during a particularly difficult period in Canada’s history. His government had to deal with persistently large budget deficits, economic recession, and the threat to Canadian unity from a separatist movement in Québec. The Mulroney government’s major achievements were the Canadian-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which took effect in 1989, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), implemented in 1994. Mulroney became extremely unpopular during his time in office; this unpopularity reflected a negative public reaction to his political style and a dissatisfaction with the direction of the country under his leadership. He resigned as both prime minister and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in June 1993.
|II||EARLY LIFE AND CAREER|
Martin Brian Mulroney was the third of six children of Irish Canadian parents, whose families had immigrated to Canada in the mid-19th century. He was born in the small town of Baie Comeau, Québec, on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River, where his father was employed as an electrician in the community’s sole industry, a newsprint mill. While English was the language he spoke at home, Mulroney became fluent in French, the first language of most residents of Baie Comeau. The company town had a rigid social hierarchy, which made Mulroney aware of the limitations that social status could impose and motivated him to think at an early age about a political career. Additionally, Mulroney became aware of the discrimination felt by French-speaking Canadians in Québec, where an English-speaking elite still largely had economic power.
Mulroney’s parents were anxious that he have an education that would equip him for career opportunities outside Baie Comeau, so they sent him to a boarding school in New Brunswick when he was ten years old. From there he went to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, from which he graduated with an honors degree in political science in 1959. After a year at the Dalhousie University law school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mulroney transferred to Université Laval in Sainte-Foy, Québec, where he received his law degree in 1964. In 1973 he married Mila Pivnicki, the daughter of immigrants from Yugoslavia.
In 1955 one of Mulroney’s university friends persuaded him to join the Progressive Conservative Party, generally known as the Conservatives or the Conservative Party. During his years at St. Francis Xavier, Mulroney took the first steps in his political career. He joined the student Progressive Conservative club, and by his fourth year he was the club president. The friendships he formed at university became the core of an enduring national political network that ultimately helped bring Mulroney to power.
When Mulroney joined the Progressive Conservative Party in 1955, it and the Liberal Party were the two main national parties. At that time the two parties were separated by few significant ideological differences, but the Liberals had been the governing party and the Conservatives the official opposition in the Canadian Parliament for 30 of the previous 35 years.
Mulroney launched into national politics as a student organizer in the 1956 campaign of John Diefenbaker to become the leader of the Conservatives. Mulroney struck up a personal relationship with Diefenbaker, who won the party’s leadership. In 1957 Diefenbaker became prime minister when the Conservatives won more seats in Parliament than any other party. As a result, Mulroney had direct access to the prime minister of Canada while only an undergraduate. Over the next six years, while the Diefenbaker government was in office, Mulroney continued to participate in Conservative Party politics in college and in law school, expanding his network of personal connections in the national party.
Diefenbaker’s government was defeated in 1963 after a serious division in his cabinet. The party then fell into a struggle over whether Diefenbaker should continue as the party’s leader, with one faction stubbornly opposing him. The battle was finally resolved in 1967 when Robert Stanfield defeated Diefenbaker and became the party leader. Mulroney had been loyal to Diefenbaker until 1967, when he supported a third candidate, Davie Fulton, for the leadership. Diefenbaker and his supporters viewed Mulroney’s defection as a betrayal and did not forgive him for it.
|A||First Bid for Party Leadership|
While deeply involved in the internal politics of the Conservative Party in the 1960s, Mulroney also focused on practicing law. In 1964 he joined a leading Montréal legal firm and specialized in labor relations law. Mulroney developed a reputation as a skillful labor negotiator and a fair-minded representative of his business clients. When the Québec government established the Cliche Royal Commission in 1974 to investigate charges of labor corruption at construction sites in northern Québec, Mulroney was appointed to represent management. Mulroney was effective at examining witnesses at the commission’s hearings, and he attracted media attention that helped establish him as a public figure in Québec.
In 1976 Stanfield resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, and Mulroney used his newfound prominence in Québec to launch his own campaign to become leader of the Conservatives. He believed he had a reasonable chance of winning because many people in the party thought it needed to establish a strong presence in Québec to successfully compete with the Liberals. At the 1976 convention Mulroney stressed his ability to restore the party in Québec.
Mulroney’s bid for party leadership was hurt by three factors. First, Claude Wagner, another candidate from Québec, was better connected with the party’s provincial organization than Mulroney was. Second, members of the Diefenbaker faction in the party refused to support Mulroney. Finally, Mulroney had never been a member of the Canadian Parliament. This factor was particularly damaging because the ability to manage and direct the party’s activities in Parliament is essential to effective leadership in the Canadian system. Mulroney placed second behind Wagner on the first ballot but was unable to draw enough support from other candidates to remain in contention. Joe Clark, a first-term member of Parliament from Alberta, became party leader after defeating Wagner on the fourth ballot.
Mulroney withdrew from politics and pursued a career in business, accepting an appointment in 1976 as executive vice president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, an American-owned company that operated mines in Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Appointed president of the company in 1977, he earned a reputation as a competent executive and established important contacts in the business community in both Canada and the United States.
In 1979 Clark became prime minister, and it seemed Mulroney’s chances of ever becoming party leader were slim. However, Clark’s government did not have a clear majority in Parliament and was forced into an election in February 1980, which it lost. Clark was blamed for this defeat, and members of the party, including supporters of Mulroney, forced Clark to call a convention in June 1983 to choose a new party leader.
At the party convention Mulroney was one of the candidates who ran against Clark. This time Mulroney did not have to contend with a rival candidate from Québec. He also had the support of the remnants of the Diefenbaker faction—who disliked Clark even more than they disliked Mulroney. Mulroney was also endorsed by a substantial group of members of Parliament; this endorsement helped allay concerns about whether he could provide effective leadership in Parliament. Mulroney was elected leader of the Conservatives on the fourth ballot.
In August 1983 Mulroney won a seat in Parliament, and he proved an effective opposition leader. In June 1984 Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister, retired, and the Liberals chose John Turner as his successor. Turner called an election for September. Mulroney performed well in nationally televised debates with Turner and Edward Broadbent, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP). He also won the support of French Canadian nationalists in Québec (see French Canadian Nationalism), and he was supported by other Canadians who were dissatisfied with the Liberal Party, which had been in office for all but nine months of the previous 21 years. The Conservatives won resoundingly in the parliamentary election, taking a record 211 of 282 seats and a majority in every province. Mulroney was reelected to his seat, and in September 1984 he became Canada’s 18th prime minister.
|IV||FIRST TERM AS PRIME MINISTER|
Mulroney and his Cabinet had little chance to capitalize on their popularity because they needed to address the huge national debt and Canada’s crippled economy. Since 1974 the government had been operating with a budget deficit each year, spending more money than it was collecting. By 1984 the deficits had accumulated to push the national debt to nearly 50 percent of all the goods and services Canada produced. The government had been borrowing money to cover its deficits, and annual interest payments on the debt accounted for some 30 percent of all the revenues the government collected. In an effort to resolve these problems, Mulroney’s government raised taxes and cut spending. Even then, however, the deficit did not shrink appreciably.
Mulroney also had difficulty managing the broad national base of supporters that had provided the Conservatives with their landslide victory. People in the four western provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) had voted out the Liberals because they felt the Liberal government had favored Québec concerns over western interests. Mulroney gave the western provinces strong representation in his cabinet and adopted a posture of responsiveness to western concerns. He also ended the Liberals’ national energy policy, which had been considered bad for western oil and gas interests. However, in 1986 Mulroney’s government decided to shift the maintenance contract for the government’s CF-18 fighter aircraft from Manitoba to Québec, and the decision provoked an angry response in western Canada.
At the other end of the country, in the economically poorer Atlantic provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), the electorate was disappointed for another reason. Mulroney had promised to increase spending for social programs in the Atlantic provinces, but the government’s financial problems left it unable to fulfill that promise. In fact, the government had to cut spending on existing programs.
The government was also battered from 1985 to 1987 by allegations that certain Cabinet ministers had granted inappropriate political favors or were guilty of misconduct. Several ministers were forced out of office, while the reputations of others were seriously damaged. The public criticized Mulroney, linking his Cabinet’s missteps to his own faults. The media and members of Parliament accused him of failing to provide clear direction to the government, of centralizing power in the hands of an incompetent personal staff, and of indulging his large network of political friends with favors. His critics accused him of breaking his promises and evading responsibility for the conduct of his ministers. Only 18 months after the election, the Mulroney government’s popularity had slipped so badly that the Conservatives fell behind the Liberals in voter preference polls.
In 1987 reelection of the Conservatives appeared unlikely, but support for Mulroney and his party had begun to resurge by the spring of 1988. Mulroney and his government were helped first by the steady improvement of the economy—an improvement they claimed was the result of Conservative policies. Mulroney and his Cabinet had instituted tax reforms and had reduced government involvement in the economy, a process that included privatizing government-owned corporations and deregulating some industries and businesses. They said these measures encouraged investment in businesses.
Another factor in Mulroney’s favor was his successful negotiation in 1987 of the Meech Lake Accord. In 1982 Canada had revised the Constitution of Canada, but Québec refused to approve it. The Meech Lake Accord was an agreement with the ten provincial premiers to amend the constitution so it would be acceptable to Québec. The accord strengthened Mulroney’s support in Québec. It also enhanced his national prestige by appearing to end a conflict that centered on Québec’s possible secession from the confederation.
The decisive factor that swung popularity back to Mulroney’s government was its success in negotiating the Canadian-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 1988. The FTA was designed to abolish all tariffs between the two countries by 1998. Many Canadian nationalists opposed the FTA. They argued that it would weaken Canada’s ability to set its own economic, social, and cultural policies, and ultimately threaten the country’s independence. Mulroney claimed the FTA would provide Canada with secure access to the American market, make Canadian business more competitive, and provide for easier settlement of trade disputes between the two countries.
During the 1988 election campaign, the FTA was a major issue. The Liberal Party was divided over it, and many prominent Liberals publicly supported the agreement. This disagreement compounded other internal divisions among the Liberals that weakened the authority and public standing of the party leader, John Turner. In the parliamentary election the Conservatives lost their majorities in the four Atlantic provinces, as well as in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, but they won a national majority with 169 of 295 seats (benefiting from the support of voters in the big provinces of Ontario and Québec).
|V||SECOND TERM AS PRIME MINISTER|
In his second term as prime minister, Mulroney suffered an unrelieved series of problems that led to his political demise. The economy had a downturn, which polls showed many people blamed on the FTA. In 1989 the Conservative government lost additional popularity when it approved the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a broad sales tax that was slated to replace in 1991 a tax charged only on manufactured goods. Because the old tax had not been charged directly to consumers, it had been hidden from them. Opposition to the GST was particularly strong in Alberta, where there was no provincial sales tax. Many Alberta Conservatives defected and joined the Reform Party (now part of the Canadian Alliance), a populist conservative party founded in 1987.
The most serious blow to the Mulroney government was the unraveling of support for the Meech Lake Accord during the summer of 1989. Critics persistently attacked the agreement, arguing that it would weaken the federal system by granting too much power to the government of Québec and would violate the principle of equality among the provinces. Many members of Canada’s First Nations vehemently opposed the agreement because it failed to address aboriginal rights. Mulroney made a valiant effort to save the Meech Lake Accord through a new round of constitutional negotiations in the spring of 1990, but Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador did not ratify it that June. As a result, the accord failed.
Even before the agreement failed, Mulroney’s senior Québec minister, Lucien Bouchard, and two other Conservative members of Parliament had resigned from the party to protest Mulroney’s willingness to renegotiate the accord’s terms. When the agreement failed, they formed a new party, the Bloc Québécois, to support Québec’s separation from Canada. The Bloc quickly gained support in Québec. Even moderate nationalists were upset because they saw the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord as English Canada rejecting Québec’s claim of distinctiveness as a French-speaking province. Québec’s Liberal premier Robert Bourassa warned the federal government that by 1992 the provincial government would hold a referendum on Québec’s status in the confederation. Faced with this ultimatum, Mulroney initiated a new round of constitutional negotiations, which resulted in the Charlottetown Accord.
By 1992 Mulroney was struggling to win public support for his major initiatives. His government had begun negotiating in 1990 with the United States and Mexico for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would expand the FTA to include Mexico. Many Canadians opposed NAFTA when it was presented to the legislatures of all three countries for approval in 1992. Mulroney’s government also fared poorly with the Charlottetown Accord, which was finalized in the summer of 1992. The accord was put to voters in a national referendum that fall and was defeated—leaving Mulroney’s efforts to achieve a constitutional accommodation for Québec in complete disarray.
In February 1993, with polls indicating that his popularity had plummeted, Mulroney announced that he would resign as Conservative leader and prime minister in June. However, he was active during his last months in office. In May he signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which called for the establishment of the territory of Nunavut in 1999, and Parliament ratified the agreement in June. Under pressure from Mulroney, the Conservative-dominated Parliament also ratified NAFTA in June, the day before Mulroney stepped down.
In June 1993 a leadership convention chose Kim Campbell as Mulroney’s successor. In the election that October—with the opposition parties associating Campbell with Mulroney and the Mulroney government’s record—the Conservatives experienced the worst defeat in their history. In Québec they were swept away by the Bloc Québécois and in western Canada by the Reform Party, while the Liberals won Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. The Conservatives lost all but two of their parliamentary seats.
Critics of Mulroney argue that his government did not do enough to reduce the federal deficit; that his unsuccessful efforts to reform the constitution widened the rift between Québec nationalists and other Canadians; and that the free trade agreements his government negotiated weakened Canada’s control over its own affairs. His supporters say that his government’s policies, particularly the passage of the FTA and NAFTA, strengthened the basic structure of the economy, laying the foundation for a period of prolonged growth beginning in 1993. Supporters also argue that he dealt as effectively as he could with the problem of national unity, which reflected deeply-felt and conflicting concerns that could not be accommodated.
Since his retirement from politics, public assessments of Mulroney’s leadership—as expressed in polls—have remained largely negative. This seems to reflect a belief that his government was too free in granting favors to its friends, a reaction to his flamboyant rhetoric that included promises he could not keep, and widespread dislike of the Goods and Services Tax. In contrast, international leaders such as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. president George Bush admired Mulroney for his role in international affairs. Close colleagues say he was an able prime minister, deeply concerned about social as well as economic issues, whose effectiveness was limited by very difficult circumstances.