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Plamondon: Mulroney built a solid foundation for a prosperous Canada

He took his biggest leap of faith in Canadian industriousness, and his biggest political risk, by pursuing and securing a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Then he bravely tackled the hidden, destructive Manufacturers’ Sales Tax (MST).

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Brian Mulroney, son of an electrician, was one of Canada’s foremost nation-builders. He courageously implemented transformative yet often unpopular policies. He restructured the Canadian economy and built a foundation that delivers prosperity to Canadians today and will for decades to come.

The third of six children of Ben Mulroney and Mary Irene O’Shea, young Brian moved effortlessly between the French and English in Baie Comeau, Que. A fixture in campus politics and conservative backrooms, and a successful career in law, set him up as a contender for the Conservative leadership in 1976. His pitch: “It doesn’t take a doctorate from the Université de Montréal to know that it is out of the question for the Conservative party to form a government without substantial support from Québec.” He finished second on the first ballot.

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In 1983, Mulroney became the first Quebecer to take the Conservatives into a general election. He immediately confronted a fatal flaw in the Conservative DNA: disunity and division. When the Liberals set a trap on French-language rights in Manitoba on Mulroney’s second day in the House of Commons as opposition leader, he challenged his caucus: “(The resolution) is based on the assumption that every one of you is stupid enough not to recognize what is going on … splitting the party and holding us up to the accusation that if we can’t govern ourselves, we can’t govern Canada.” His caucus united behind him.

While Mulroney entered the 1984 election as an underdog, he took the upper hand after delivering a knockout punch during the national leaders’ debates on the issue of Liberal patronage practices. Mulroney earned a popular vote of just over 50 per cent.

From his youth, Mulroney had wanted to be prime minister and he knew he would govern with one fundamental objective in mind: do what was right for Canada over the long term. On economic management, his government dismantled the National Energy Program; replaced the restrictive Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) with Investment Canada; privatized Crown corporations; and changed the risk and investment climate through tax reform.

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Facing an unprecedented government deficit, Mulroney reduced relative program spending over his first term by 15 per cent. His government had transformed an operating deficit of $12.2 billion into an operating surplus of $7.5 billion.

Mulroney’s government took the lead on several international fronts, including the establishment of La Francophonie. He opposed Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and championed trade sanctions on South Africa, and he was singled out for his role in the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

He took his biggest leap of faith in Canadian industriousness and resilience as a nation, and his biggest political risk, by pursuing and securing a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. He won that fight and gave Conservatives their first back-to-back majority governments since Sir John A. Macdonald.

Mulroney then bravely tackled the hidden, yet profoundly destructive, Manufacturers’ Sales Tax (MST) by replacing it with the GST.  Every government over the previous 30 years had been challenged by economists and business leaders to change the sales tax system. Only Mulroney dared to take the political heat and do what was right for Canada.

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Nothing held more hope for Canadian unity, and ultimately more disappointment for Mulroney, than the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord. Every provincial premier had signed the original accord in 1987 to gain Quebec’s signature on our constitutional documents. But ensuing provincial elections had brought a few new premiers to the table who took a view different than that their predecessors. Mulroney described the end of Meech as being “like a death in the family.” He said, “I would rather have failed trying to advance the cause of Canada’s unity than to simply have played it safe, done nothing or criticized from the sidelines.”

The coalition that Mulroney had assembled to win two majorities began to crack as two regionally based political parties emerged. The Reform Party exploited Western alienation and the Bloc Québécois flourished with the demise of Meech Lake. Meanwhile, the economy went into recession, burdened by high interest rates imposed by a doctrinaire Governor of the Bank of Canada.

Despite political fissures and economic challenges, Mulroney’s commitment to future generations was evident in environmental initiatives such as the Green Plan and the Acid Rain Treaty, earning him the distinction of being Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister.

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Mulroney’s popularity was highest when it counted most, during the 1984 and 1988 elections. With historically low approval ratings in 1993, Mulroney remarked, “Every time you make tough decisions you lose friends. None will accuse us of having chosen to evade our responsibilities by sidestepping the most controversial questions of our time.” Having inspired those with whom he served, Mulroney is revered by all of his former colleagues to this day.

Brian Mulroney’s legacy looms large in the annals of Canadian history, a testament to his unwavering commitment to national unity, prosperity and justice. Mulroney governed with a vision for transformative change. And he turned the Conservative Party into a winning political force after many years in the wilderness.

Bob Plamondon is the author of The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada. He was also the Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Ottawa Centre in the 1988 election under the leadership of Brian Mulroney.

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