25 years ago today, Brian Mulroney was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada. His reign as Prime Minister began with an election landslide where his party won more seats than any before or since. Less than 9 years later, his reign ended with him earning among the lowest approval ratings for any Prime Minister. Months later, his party was decimated in the general election, and barely recovered in the next decade before merging with the Canadian Alliance.
After leaving office with an approval rating of around 20% (doubling his number from a few months prior), and seeing his party reduced from a majority government to 2 seats in an election, you might think we’d have heard the last of Prime Minister Mulroney. You’d be wrong, and I’m not talking about any inquiries that have come before Parliament. Brian Mulroney is still with us, because in many ways, the major issues of his tenure still define us politically.
The GST: Good Economics, Bad Politics
In its second term, Mulroney’s government brought in the GST, replacing the old tax on manufacturers. Economics like this, regular citizens generally don’t. Sales taxes still come up. Talk of harmonizing provincial and federal sales taxes still draws controversy, and in 2006 the Conservative Party made rolling back the GST from 7% to 5% a centerpiece of its campaign.
The Mulroney government brought forward the FTA, which became the focal point of the 1988 election. Before leaving office, Mulroney signed on to NAFTA. Though the Liberals campaigned against NAFTA in 1993, they accepted it once in office. Trade issues still come up – see the concerns about the ‘Buy American’ push from our neighbour to the south, and concerns about a proposed free trade deal with Colombia. That is, of course, to say nothing about buy local and local food movements. We’re still trying to feel our way around the issue of free trade, with no resolution in sight.
Refoooorm and the Divided Right
His decision to award the CF-18 contract to a Quebec company instead of the Manitoba one that submitted a superior bid provided the spark for the Reform Party to coalesce. The ballooning deficits of his government helped give the Reform Party its defining issue in its early years.
Maybe a Reform Party would have emerged regardless, but undeniably the Mulroney government’s actions helped bring about its relevance and success. The red tories and their more conservative brethren split ways, a major cause of the right’s decade in the wilderness from the mid-90’s through the mid-00s. Though the PCs and the Canadian Alliance (successor to the Reform Party) united under the banner of the Conservative Party in Canada in 2003, there is still a divide within the party, one that could be exposed and potentially exacerbated whenever the next leadership contest is held.
We end with the big one. First, the Mulroney government ended the Liberal party dominance in la belle province that began with Laurier. For 90 years, the Liberals could almost invariably count on winning a massive majority in Quebec, helping it form a string of majority governments, and in later years, compensating for diminishing success in the west. Once the Quebec stranglehold was broken, the Liberal path to victory – especially a majority government – became significantly more challenging. The vote splitting that allowed them to win near sweeps of Ontario in 1993, 1997, and 2000 masked this for a while, but with a united Conservative Party, there is no longer a clear path to a majority government for the Liberal Party. As long as the sovereigntists and soft nationalists are voting (be it for the PCs or the BQ), success in Quebec is far from a sure thing. After the 1980 election, the Liberals have won more than 26 of the 75 Quebec seats only once – winning 36 in 2000. In most of the elections, they’ve hovered around 20 seats. Suffice to say, Mulroney brought about a significant realignment of politics at the federal level in Quebec, first through his push for support, then through the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois in response to the failed renegotiation of the constitution that he initiated.
Which brings us to the issue of Quebec sovereignty, nationalism, and national unity. Now, you might point out that Québec Nationalism has ebbed and flowed since at least the time of Honoré Mercier (great-grandfather of NDP MP Thomas Mulcair!), and you’d be correct. It very likely could have ebbed again in the 1990s, but Mulroney’s actions certainly brought it on and exacerbated tensions. He also brought Lucien Bouchard, his old law school classmate, into government. Bouchard became the charismatic leader of the sovereignty movement, and nearly succeeded in winning the 1995 referendum.
While support for sovereignty has waned since then, the struggle to define Quebec’s place in confederation still confounds federal politicians (see Harper’s attempt to solve the fiscal imbalance, and the debate surrounding the idea of Quebec as a nation).
Do We Owe These Issues to Mulroney, or Was He Simply in Power at the Right Time?
This is a fascinating question that deserves a lengthy essay at the least, if not a full book. It’s difficult to answer, particularly since in many ways the answer depends on examining the alternatives – namely, what would a Joe Clark, John Crosbie, John Turner, or Ed Broadbent government have looked like in the 1980s and early 1990s?
Perhaps we can agree on this. When Mulroney came into office, the only organized western protest movement – the Western Canada Concept – was effectively a failed project. Quebec sovereignty was on the wane, and within the PQ there was debate about how much emphasis to put on the issue. Canadians had just gone through a long, divisive process of hammering out a Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebec didn’t sign on, but it didn’t appear to be a sticking point in any upcoming elections.
When he left office, an upstart western protest movement was squeezing his party out of the prairies; a sovereigntist caucus had emerged in parliament, led by his former Quebec lieutenant. Two rounds of constitutional debates had inflamed passions and hard feelings across the country. The GST and free trade, already in place, remained contentious issues.
What is undeniable is this: on two fronts – western alienation and Quebec nationalism/sovereignty – Mulroney’s actions made situations significantly worse. His constitutional dalliances brought the country to the brink of separation. He left office with most of the issues he took on unresolved and continuing to fester.
That being said, the economy likely would have struggled through most of the next 10 years, regardless of who was in power. Starting in the 1980s, and accelerating in the 1990s, the worldwide community moved towards greater economic integration. Free(er) trade likely would have happened at some point, and the 1990s were a fiscally conservative time worldwide – even without Reform, the PC Party likely would have veered right – as it did provincially in Alberta and Ontario.
16 years after he left office, we’re still dealing with the issues brought about by 9 years of government led by Brian Mulroney. As we head for the 8th election since his landslide, there are no signs of this abating any time soon. The Mulroney government and the issues of his tenure stay with us, even as the man at the centre of that period recedes from public life.