With Brian Mulroney, we were adversaries, never enemies

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Brian Mulroney was a people person. Even when his party had plummeted in popularity, he was able to keep the caucus united thanks to his awesome interpersonal skills. Though we were political adversaries, we remained friends long after he left politics.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 7, 2024.

OTTAWA—This year is the 40th anniversary of the election of Brian Mulroney.

The right honourable prime minister would have loved to celebrate the largest victory in Canadian history, but time robbed him of that opportunity.

Instead, a state funeral will be held to honour his life, and Canadians will revisit the accomplishments of a remarkable leader.

The prime minister and I were elected on the same day: Sept. 4, 1984.

But we sat on opposite sides of the House. Mulroney was leading 211 Conservatives, most of whom were elected in that sweep, while I was one of only 10 new Liberals.

Our party had been decimated, and political pundits were predicting the Liberals would disappear to be replaced by the New Democrats. It was widely predicted that Canada would follow an international trend of the political right and left in constant battle with nobody in the centre.

Mulroney was the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. He was a centrist prime minister who believed in the power of government for positive change.

Current Conservatives say it is the job of government to get out of the way, and let people run their affairs with no collective responsibility.

But Mulroney understood that government could be an instrument of positive change. He was born in Baie Comeau, a small mining town in northern Quebec, and he understood the need for government.

He was also the first Conservative leader to really understand Quebec, and its need for distinctiveness.

It was that understanding that paved the way for a massive Progressive Conservative majority back in 1984.

But it was also his wish to get Quebec’s signature on the Canadian constitution that eventually fractured the party in favour of a western-based equivalent of the Bloc Québécois.

In 1987, the Reform Party was formed under the leadership of Preston Manning. Fatigued by the Meech Lake debate, Reformers believed Progressive Conservatives were too focused on the East, especially Quebec.

Their platform called for a Triple-E Senate: equal, elected and effective. An elected Senate was supposed to counterbalance the influence of the House of Commons, dominated by Members of Parliament from Eastern Canada.

Some Reformers also held negative views towards women, minorities, and homosexuals. Built on a strong Christian base, the party blurred the separation between church and state that had been the foundation of Canadian politics.

But in the 1988 election, Reformers only managed to garner two per cent of the vote while the Progressive Conservatives sustained a second majority with their promise of a free trade agreement.

Mulroney believed in an activist government. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement in the face of considerable opposition from the manufacturing heartland of Ontario.

He also introduced the goods and services tax, another initiative that opposition Liberals opposed.

That tax replaced a 13.5 per cent manufacturers’ sales tax, but—unlike the former—it was not embedded in the price of goods, but was added at the cash register.

While it was wildly unpopular, the tax set the stage for fiscal stability as it has generated billions of dollars annually for federal coffers. Last year, it produced more than $16-billion in revenue and, in 2022, government collected $21.5-billion in GST.

Mulroney also loomed large on the international scene, setting the stage for an end to apartheid in South Africa by working within the Commonwealth to impose sanctions.

Mulroney had to fight Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and American president Ronald Reagan on that move, as both opposed the sanctions that ultimately broke the back of the South African government.

Above all, Mulroney was a people person. Even when his party had plummeted in popularity, he was able to keep the caucus united and motivated, largely because of his awesome interpersonal skills.

Even though we were political adversaries, we remained friends long after Mulroney left politics.

Whenever I would call him, his first question would be about my family.

Mulroney had every reason to despise a former Liberal rat-packer, but he never made politics personal. He understood we all had a job to do. While we were adversaries, we were never enemies.

The centrist party Mulroney led no longer exists.

Instead, anti-government former Reformers have taken centre stage in the Conservative movement.

Perhaps it is a reflection of the direction of the country. The notion of collective responsibility has largely been replaced by rabid individualism with an emphasis on the word “rabid.”

Mulroney understood that there was no place in politics for hate.

His prime ministerial legacy changed Canada. May he rest in peace.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.