The New Life of Brian

A new bi­og­ra­phy re­assesses the legacy—and tracks the come­back—of our eigh­teenth prime min­is­ter

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Ira Wells

A new bi­og­ra­phy re­assesses the legacy—and tracks the come­back— of our eigh­teenth prime min­is­ter

When Brian Mul­roney re­signed from pol­i­tics in 1993, among those who ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated his leave-tak­ing were his own do­mes­tic staff. In a cringe-in­duc­ing farewell scene cap­tured in Ste­vie Cameron’s 1994 po­lit­i­cal ex­posé On the Take, the prime min­is­ter and his wife, Mila, bound for the French Riviera, paused to say good­bye to the maids, chef, and but­ler who had as­sem­bled out­side the PM’S res­i­dence. Af­ter help­ing Mila into the wait­ing limou­sine, Mul­roney mum­bled, “We’re just a phone call away.” An awk­ward si­lence en­sued. “What’s the num­ber, Boss?” some­one said. “Uh, just a phone call away,” Mul­roney re­peated, and the door slammed shut. As the limou­sine drove off, one maid couldn’t re­sist hol­ler­ing,

“Don’t come back!”

It would be hard to find a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that en­com­passed more tri­umphant highs and more dev­as­tat­ing lows than that of our eigh­teenth prime min­is­ter. In the 1984 fed­eral elec­tion, Mul­roney de­liv­ered the great­est land­slide ma­jor­ity govern­ment in Cana­dian his­tory to the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives, who won 211 seats. Seven years later, the wrath against his party reached bib­li­cal pro­por­tions. Western Cana­di­ans hated him for sell­ing out their in­ter­ests by award­ing a $100 mil­lion main­te­nance con­tract for new fighter jets to Que­bec rather than Man­i­toba. Que­be­cers hated him for fail­ing to de­liver on promised con­sti­tu­tional re­forms that would have fi­nally rec­og­nized theirs as a dis­tinct so­ci­ety. And most of the coun­try hated him for in­tro­duc­ing the 7 per­cent good­sand-ser­vices tax.

Too un­pop­u­lar to win an­other term, Mul­roney bowed out ahead of the 1993 fed­eral elec­tion. He was re­placed by Kim Campbell, but anger against him re­mained. When the elec­toral dust set­tled, the Lib­er­als formed the next govern­ment, and the smoul­der­ing crater once known as the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party was left with two seats. It was the worst de­feat in Cana­dian pol­i­tics.

Twenty-five years have passed since Mul­roney’s re­tire­ment. De­trac­tors still call him “Lyin’ Brian,” and some see him as a mega­lo­ma­niac who was only ever in it for the power and money. In 1995, it was re­vealed that the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice was in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Mul­roney ac­cepted kick­backs on the sale of Air­bus jets to Air Canada. While he did win an apol­ogy and a $2.1 mil­lion defama­tion set­tle­ment from the govern­ment, the for­mer PM later ad­mit­ted to ac­cept­ing en­velopes stuffed with 1,000-dol­lar bills from Ger­man busi­ness­man Karl­heinz Schreiber — part of a pay­out of at least $225,000 that Mul­roney had ear­lier de­nied re­ceiv­ing un­der oath. And the scan­dals con­tinue. Last Novem­ber, news broke that his legacy project, the new $60 mil­lion Mul­roney In­sti­tute of Govern­ment, had al­legedly been bankrolled by bil­lion­aires mired in in­ter­na­tional bribery and cor­rup­tion schemes.

Yet there is no de­bat­ing it: Brian Mul­roney is back. Fol­low­ing the 2016 United States pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Justin

Trudeau’ s govern­ment, which had bet heav­ily on a Hil­lary Clin­ton vic­tory, em­braced Mul­roney as a con­sigliere for man­ag­ing re­la­tions with Don­ald Trump, a man he has known for years. Mul­roney’s close re­la­tion­ships with Trump acolytes and in­sid­ers have now be­come in­valu­able na­tional re­sources in the tense and on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions over the Northamer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment — a pact Mul­roney was vil­i­fied for sign­ing decades ear­lier. On Jan­uary 30 of this year, he tes­ti­fied be­fore the US Se­nate Com­mit­tee on For­eign Re­la­tions, where he sold NA FTA as an eco­nomic tri­umph for all in­volved and spoke stir­ringly of Canada-us re­la­tions as “the most suc­cess­ful and peace­ful bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship in world his­tory.” That the son of Pierre El­liott Trudeau, Mul­roney’s for­mer po­lit­i­cal neme­sis, is now fight­ing to de­fend the cen­tre­piece of Mul­roney’s pol­icy legacy is the clear­est sign that Mul­roney is en­ti­tled to brag­ging rights. “No­body has achieve­ments like this,” he said in an in­ter­view pub­lished in 2006, with a swag­ger we might now dub Trumpian. “You can­not name a Cana­dian prime min­is­ter who has done as many sig­nif­i­cant things as I did, be­cause there are none.”

Fen Osler Hampson would agree. In his new book Mas­ter of Per­sua­sion: Brian Mul­roney’s Global Legacy, Hampson tells the story of a trans­for­ma­tive leader who changed Canada’s for­eign re­la­tion­ships and im­proved our stand­ing in the world. Hampson achieves that goal ef­fort­lessly, de­tail­ing how Mul­roney backed Com­mon­wealth sanc­tions in 1986 against South Africa to help bring an end to apartheid, per­suaded Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush to seek United Na­tions backing for the 1990 Gulf War, and was a con­stant cam­paigner for hu­man rights. But the book also un­der­scores the ex­tent to which Mul­roney’s re-emer­gence is tied to the fact that he’s in pos­ses­sion of a set of skills now in short sup­ply — he’s an elder states­man alive in an era that’s for­got­ten the first prin­ci­ples of the dark art he prac­tices. Like Rocky Bal­boa in the movie Creed, Mul­roney has been called out of re­tire­ment to re­mind us of his old win­ning ways. L itt le in Mul­roney’s child­hood sug­gested he was des­tined for the coun­try’s high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice. His­fa­ther toiled as an elec­tri­cian at the lo­cal mill in Baie-comeau, Que­bec, and the fam­ily scraped by on his hourly wage. Mul­roney grew up an an­glo­phone Catholic in a fran­co­phone town where most English speak­ers were Protes­tant — lin­guis­tic and re­li­gious bar­ri­ers cast him as an out­sider. Yet, from an early age, Mul­roney could in­gra­ti­ate him­self with in­sid­ers and place him­self at the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. Decades be­fore he crooned “When Ir­ish Eyes are Smil­ing” with Ron­ald Rea­gan in Que­bec City, young Brian per­formed “Dearie” for Robert R. Mccormick, the news­pa­per baron and founder of Baie-comeau, who sup­pos­edly slipped the twelve-year-old a $50 bill.

Mul­roney would go on to a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, dur­ing the 1970s, as a labour lawyer and, later, a busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive. Cen­tral to his po­lit­i­cal rise was his tal­ent for cul­ti­vat­ing close per­sonal and pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships, a skill Hampson de­scribes as “leg­endary.” Con­tacts were or­ga­nized ac­cord­ing to hubs and spokes. Hubs, ac­cord­ing to Mul­roney bi­og­ra­pher John Sawatsky, were a se­lect group of in­flu­encers in a city or area. They would get calls from Mul­roney as of­ten as ev­ery week. Spokes — a larger group, gen­er­ally un­der the sway of hubs — might re­ceive only one or two calls a year. But if a spoke was pro­moted, ap­peared in the news­pa­per, or ex­pe­ri­enced a death in the fam­ily, Mul­roney would fire off a per­sonal note. He re­mem­bered de­tails such as birthdays and chil­dren’s names, and he used this fa­mil­iar­ity to draw out gos­sip and stay abreast of de­vel­op­ments in law, busi­ness, and pol­i­tics. The re­sult was a vast in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing op­er­a­tion. If Mul­roney, or one of his clients, en­coun­tered re­sis­tance in a ne­go­ti­a­tion or labour dis­pute, he would lever­age his Rolodex to sweeten the deal or gain con­ces­sions. He al­ways knew a guy.

Mul­roney’s so­cial net­work was his life’s work, and af­ter he oc­cu­pied the prime min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence on 24 Sus­sex Drive, the reach of his net­work grew. Mul­roney’s hubs now in­cluded ma­jor lead­ers of the free world: Rea­gan, Nel­son Man­dela, Ger­man chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, French pres­i­dent François Mit­ter­rand. But while the theatre of op­er­a­tions ex­panded, the ba­sic sys­tem stayed the same. If he needed to make a deal, Mul­roney picked up the phone. In the lead up to the Gulf War, Bush tasked Mul­roney with call­ing Egyp­tian pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak in or­der to bring the Arab world into the Us-led coali­tion force against Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Mul­roney’s per­sonal clout played a cru­cial role in one his most con­tro­ver­sial suc­cesses: the 1989 Canada-united States Free Trade Agree­ment, which would be­come NA FTA with the in­clu­sion of Mex­ico in 1994. At the time, Mul­roney’s de­ci­sion to pur­sue free trade with the US elicited fierce do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion. In 1988 elec­tion ads, the NDP warned that the free-trade agree­ment would kill the Cana­dian health care sys­tem, and the Lib­er­als im­plied it would lead to Canada’s an­nex­a­tion by the US. Lu­mi­nar­ies of Cana­dian cul­ture made the case in more colour­ful terms: “About the only po­si­tion [the Amer­i­cans] have adopted to­ward us,” Mar­garet At­wood said, “has been the mis­sion­ary po­si­tion, and we were not on top.”

The im­me­di­ate is­sue with the free-trade agree­ment, how­ever, wasn’t Amer­i­can ra­pac­ity but the fact that politi­cians south of the bor­der weren’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested. Be­fore the deal was signed, ne­go­tia­tors slogged through sev­eral rounds of talks, get­ting nowhere. Hours be­fore Congress’s author­ity to fast-track the leg­is­la­tion was set to ex­pire, Mul­roney placed a call to Rea­gan. Hampson re­ports that Mul­roney asked the pres­i­dent how, at the height of ten­sions with the Soviet Union, the US could “con­clude anu­clear arms re­duc­tion agree­ment with its Cold War ad­ver­sary, and at the same time fail to sum­mon the will to con­clude a trade agree­ment with its Cana­dian ally and neigh­bour.” A fi­nal deal was tabled within the hour.

The num­bers alone sug­gest Mul­roney has been vin­di­cated. Cana­dian trade with

If Mul­roney en­coun­tered re­sis­tance in a ne­go­ti­a­tion, he would lever­age his Rolodex to sweeten the deal. He al­ways knew a guy.

US and Mex­ico in­creased from $222bil­lion in 1989 to more than $850 bil­lion in 2015. But the tri­umph of NA FTA has also meant that a gen­er­a­tion of Cana­dian politi­cians, hav­ing learned to take the trade deal for granted, never ex­pected they would now find them­selves scram­bling to save it. Af­ter Trump called it “one of the worst deals ever made” and threat­ened to pull out, the Trudeau Lib­er­als ac­ti­vated Mul­roney to make the Cana­dian case. As he re­minded the US Se­nate com­mit­tee dur­ing his ap­pear­ance this Jan­uary, “With less than 7per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, NA FTA part­ners ... rep­re­sented 28 per­cent of the world’s to­tal GDP.”

Mul­roney’s rhetor­i­cal style has al­ways drifted to­ward ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and his per­for­mance be­fore the Se­nate com­mit­tee was no dif­fer­ent. He hadn’t fudged the num­bers, but the over­all ef­fect of his pre­sen­ta­tion was to in­flate the risks as­so­ci­ated with los­ing NA FTA. In fact, ac­cord­ing to Dou­glas Porter, chief econ­o­mist at BMO Fi­nan­cial Group, the cost of ter­mi­nat­ing NA FTA would be a 1 per­cent drop in eco­nomic growth over the next five years: leav­ing NA FTA, he wrote, “Is a man­age­able risk that pol­i­cy­mak­ers, busi­nesses, and mar­kets would ad­just to in rel­a­tively short or­der.” True, the Cana­dian GDP has nearly dou­bled since 1993, but the av­er­age full­time hourly wage has been “es­sen­tially un­changed” since 1975, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada. NA FTA de­liv­ered the goods for in­vestors, but the ben­e­fits for the rest of us are mostly the­o­ret­i­cal.

Of course, Mul­roney was not sent to Wash­ing­ton to pro­vide an un­var­nished as­sess­ment of the de­tails. He was sent to var­nish. His tes­ti­mony in front of the Se­nate com­mit­tee was char­ac­ter­ized by the per­for­ma­tive charm, soar­ing rhetoric, and twin­kle-eyed blar­ney that de­liv­ered him two ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments. Did it work? As of this writ­ing, ne­go­tia­tors have wrapped up seven rounds of talks with lit­tle to show. Skep­tics might ar­gue that Mul­roney was sim­ply do­ing what he has al­ways done: find a way to place him­self at the cen­tre of the ac­tion. F or read­ers of Hampson’s book, it can be hard to be­lieve that the man be­ing de­scribed is the same politi­cian who, dur­ing cam­paigns, was at­tacked as the “big money” can­di­date and whose lav­ishly ren­o­vated clos­ets at 24 Sus­sex Drive re­port­edly housed fifty pairs of

Gucci loafers.

Hampson por­trays some­one who, to an ex­tent true of few prime min­is­ters be­fore and none since, had a clear vi­sion of Canada’s moral in­flu­ence on the world and mo­bi­lized the re­sources and po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to make that vi­sion a re­al­ity. Mul­roney’s govern­ment drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to the 1984 Ethiopian famine and spear­headed re­lief ef­forts that saved mil­lions of lives. It like­wise led the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in call­ing for a re­sponse to eth­nic cleans­ing in the for­mer Yu­goslavia. Dur­ing Mul­roney’s ten­ure, Canada tele­graphed its prin­ci­ples in sym­bolic ways, such as our “first to pay” pol­icy, in which Cana­dian of­fi­cials hand de­liv­ered con­tri­bu­tion cheques to the UN. But the sym­bol­ism was backed by con­crete force. “Canada was an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in all six­teen UN peace­keep­ing mis­sions that took place while Mul­roney was in of­fice,” Hampson writes, “con­tribut­ing more than 10 per­cent of all troops as­signed to the UN.” Today, that pro­por­tion is less than 0.1 per­cent.

As Hampson de­tails, one of Mul­roney’s great­est achieve­ments as prime min­is­ter was also one of the hard­est won: abi­lat­eral treaty with the United States to com­bat acid rain. Rea­gan — who had de­clared that trees cause more air pol­lu­tion than au­to­mo­biles — didn’t budge, at first. But Mul­roney kept chip­ping away at him and at the is­sue. This cam­paign in­cluded de­liv­er­ing a pierc­ing jeremiad be­fore a joint ses­sion of the US Congress in 1988 (“What would be said of a gen­er­a­tion of North Amer­i­cans that found a way to ex­plore the stars but al­lowed its lakes and forests to lan­guish and die?”). For the next three years, he went on CNN to scold re­cal­ci­trant mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, had his own team leak a memo de­pict­ing Cana­dian out­rage at Amer­i­can in­ac­tion, and — most im­por­tantly — nur­tured key con­gres­sional al­lies. In­deed, Mul­roney’s “con­stant schmooz­ing,” Hampson re­ports, “was crit­i­cal.”

The Canada-united States Air Qual­ity Agree­ment was fi­nally signed in 1991. His suc­cess on the file, com­bined with his pas­sage of the am­bi­tious En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Act, which re­quired seven prov­inces to cut sul­phur diox­ide emis­sions by half, prompted a 2006 sur­vey of en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts to call Mul­roney the green­est prime min­is­ter in Cana­dian his­tory.

But the qual­i­ties cen­tral to Mul­roney’s tri­umphs — his art­ful back­room deal­ing, em­pha­sis on per­sonal con­nec­tions, and out­sized con­fi­dence — also fed his fail­ures and even­tual down­fall. Hampson leans on the charm­ing tale, the sen­ti­men­tal anecdote, and mo­ments of mas­cu­line ca­ma­raderie that be­long in a Hol­ly­wood buddy pic­ture. (“You know, Brian,” Rea­gan is once sup­posed to have re­marked, throw­ing his arm around Mul­roney’s shoul­der, “for two Ir­ish­men, we sure mar­ried up!”) Un­for­tu­nately, Hampson also san­i­tizes his sub­ject. We know, thanks to in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Ste­vie Cameron, that blue-chip donors en­joyed un­par­al­leled ac­cess to the high­est lev­els of Mul­roney’s govern­ment, with of­fi­cials re­ceiv­ing pay­ments in re­turn for lu­cra­tive of­fice deals, en­gi­neer­ing con­tracts, and govern­ment grants.

Look­ing back, we can see how Mul­roney punc­tures a mis­con­cep­tion about pol­i­tics: that cor­rup­tion and achieve­ment are mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. Sure, it’s eas­ier to celebrate the ac­com­plish­ments of a leader who does not reek of ve­nal­ity, but the truth is much messier. Mul­roney may hail from Baie- Comeau, but like Jay Gatsby, he “sprang” — in F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s words — “from his Pla­tonic con­cep­tion of him­self.” Mul­roney’s self-styled mythol­ogy, how­ever, suf­fers from its own lim­i­ta­tions. His cul­ti­vated aura of celebrity worked mar­vels among his le­gions of con­tacts but struck many Cana­di­ans as haughty and aloof. In tran­scend­ing his or­di­nar­i­ness, he ended up hold­ing the con­fi­dence of ev­ery­one but Cana­dian vot­ers. By the time Mul­roney left pol­i­tics, his sup­port had hit 15 per­cent.

How did a prime min­is­ter of Mul­roney’s ac­com­plish­ments be­come so de­spised? Per­haps the an­swer is not sim­ply the GST or the grad­ual ac­cu­mu­la­tion of scan­dal. Per­haps the real dis­ap­point­ment stems from the fact that Mul­roney’s need for ap­proval was our shared na­tional con­di­tion. We glimpse in him an in­car­na­tion of the in­se­cu­rity lurking at the very bot­tom of the Cana­dian psy­che. We thrilled to his global tri­umphs, then felt per­son­ally be­trayed by his ap­par­ent self-in­ter­est­ed­ness. In some deep sense, Mul­roney is still that needy twelve-year-old from Baie-comeau, reach­ing out for val­i­da­tion in the form of a fifty.

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