Brian Mulroney: Canada’s “Consequential” 18th Prime Minister

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With the passing of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, journalists and media commentators alike were faced with a serious dilemma. How to accurately characterize the legacy of Canada’s highly controversial 18th prime minister? The CBC solved it brilliantly in its breaking news segment, and in short order almost all of the other print and broadcast media joined them. He was, they declared as one, a “consequential” prime minister.

With that one word they managed to sum up in neutral terms a career that spanned almost a decade, one in which there were some impressive highs but even more egregious lows. There can be no doubt that Brian Mulroney’s legacy is the result of a number of consequential decisions in terms of public policy, governance and national unity. Indeed, the effects of many of those decisions are still being felt to this day. It follows that none of this legacy, either positive or negative, should be forgotten, especially if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

To begin with, it is important to remember that Brian Mulroney was a controversial figure from the day he was first elected prime minister in 1984. Many progressives thought the end of Canada as they knew it might be a real possibility, especially given his unprecedented majority. Although he was hardly an ideologically driven politician like former prime minister Stephen Harper, the centre-left knew that in broad terms Mulroney represented the New Right as epitomized by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two politicians he greatly admired and who both became personal friends. And although the newly elected Progressive Conservative prime minister had no well-conceived coherent agenda, (with a party platform that he and others claimed he wrote in part on a napkin while on an airplane)[i] he did have strong views on so-called big government. His disdain for the public service, (“I’ll give them pink slips and running shoes”[ii]) was well-known. So, too, was his obsession with deregulation and privatization at all costs, a belief that led him to sell off at fire sale prices some 21 crown corporations, (Air Canada, Connaught Laboratories, PetroCanada and Telesat among the most notable) and even to create a Minister of Privatization, (the ill-fated Sinclair Stevens). Then there was his preference for partisan political advantage over evidence-based decision-making (the CF-18 maintenance contract moved from Manitoba’s Bristol Aerospace to Montreal’s Canadair) which stoked regional resentment. All of these seemed to confirm his opponents’ worst fears.

Less predictable but equally unsettling were his government’s seemingly endless stream of scandals, with ministers resigning at record rates and charges of cronyism and nepotism surfacing on a regular basis.[iii] From Sinclair Stevens, Bob Coates, John Fraser and Suzanne Blais-Grenier to Roch LaSalle, Andree Champagne and Andre Bisonette (of the notorious Oerlikon scandal) it was difficult for the media to keep up with the unprecedented litany of shady deals and misdeeds of his cabinet.[iv] Worse still, in less than seven years an astonishing five of his backbench MPs and a number of party organizers had been charged and several were convicted of criminal offences stemming from misuse of public office, including Tory MPs Michel Grise and Michel Gravel, something not seen over the previous sixteen years.[v] And, having added “patronage” to the lexicon of ordinary Canadians during the 1984 leaders’ debate, skewering John Turner’s chances of returning to power, (“You sir, had an option, to say no”), Mulroney proceeded to demonstrate the true meaning of the word in action. It quickly became obvious that he was hard at work fulfilling his behind-the-scenes commitment to the party faithful to move as fast as possible to give every Tory some sort of reward, as revealed by Globe and Mail journalist Stevie Cameron. She concluded “If Brian Mulroney has a single friend who hasn’t been appointed to a board or agency, or hasn’t been appointed Queen’s Counsel or hasn’t been given a fat contract or appointed to the Senate, that friend deserves to be be annoyed.” [vi] The result was a disastrous number of inappropriate appointments, including the sinecure of his wife’s hairdresser to the Federal Development Bank of Canada.[vii]

Then Mulroney did something impressive for someone who literally had no experience in government before he won the brass ring. Having graduated from labour lawyer to leader of the Progressive Conservative Party to prime minister of Canada in less than two years, he had no idea of how government worked when he first took on the task. But he learned on the job. After a tumultuous first term in which leading ministers regularly contradicted each other on important policy files,[viii] while others appeared to be wandering around aimlessly, he realized he needed help. And he now knew that the merit-based professional public service he had once mocked was, in fact, crucial to the success of any of his plans. And so he turned to highly regarded senior mandarins like Simon Reisman, Derek Burney and Norman Spector to help him shepherd his major initiatives through to completion. The result was an unprecedeented second majority government and two of the most consequential, and lasting, policies of his tenure, the Free Trade Agreement and the GST. Whether they agreed with them or not, it soon became abundantly clear that no politicians who succeeded him would dare to meddle with these new Canadian realities. Even Stephen Harper, whose favourite mantra was “there is no such thing as a good tax,” found himself obliged to only nibble at the margins, reducing the GST base rate incrementally by a grand total of 2%, a move that incidentally cost the federal government billions in lost revenue and benefited primarily wealthy Canadians.[ix]

There were other areas in which Mulroney’s credentials as a genuine progressive Conservative came to the fore. Two stand out. First, his commitment to the elimination of apartheid policy in South Africa, a position which saw him take on his friend Margaret Thatcher and much of the Commonwealth, and which in the end undoubtedly was a key factor in the success of that initiative. And, second, his recognition of the importance of environmental concerns, as evidenced by his commitment at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio di Janiero and his earlier appointment of Tom McMillan as Environment Minister (a move which, incidentally, led to another consequential decision when Macmillan appointed a prominent young environmental activist, Elizabeth May, as his Senior Policy Adviser.)

These accomplishments, however, must be balanced against Mr. Mulroney’s destructive legacy on the national unity file, and on the sad fate of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Here, too, he proved to be a tremendously controversial figure. His decision to recruit his old friend Lucien Bouchard to national politics and into his cabinet proved calamitous. But Bouchard, a known separatist who had voted YES in the 1980 provincial referendum, was only the first of many consequential decisions. While some observers viewed Mulroney’s efforts to introduce another constitutional amendment package in 1985, (only three years after the adoption of the Constitution Act, 1982 under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau), as an attempt to mitigate against separatist unrest in Quebec, many more believed Mulroney’s 1985 Meech Lake Accord proposal was a dangerous and unnecessary vanity project motivated by his desire to outdo his predecessor, Trudeau. For opponents of the deal that Accord was seen as a flawed document that would (a) have actually offered support to the separatist cause through the recognition of a “distinct society” clause, (b) undone much of the progress made by the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, (c) called into question longstanding programs of the social safety net and (d) affected the credibilty of the Supreme Court appointments process. For his part Mulroney was determined to resist all attempts at negotiation and compromise, (“not one comma can be changed”) and compounded his error by passively waiting for the five year ratification process he had agreed upon with provincial premiers to unfold.

When that project ultimately failed in 1990, through a combination of provincial, expert and public opposition, an unrepentant Mulroney returned to the charge with the even more problematic Charlottetown Accord in 1992. This was a massive and convoluted document that some experts believed would have impacted more than one third of the constitution. This time, however, the prime minister attempted to speed up the ratification process, introducing a national referendum scheduled for October 26, barely two months after the deal was adopted by provincial premiers in August. This time, as well, Mulroney upped the ante, declaring that anyone who opposed the deal was “a traitor to Canada.”[x] As well, the federal government organized a well-funded YES campaign to ensure broadly based public support. Opponents of the deal were forced to operate a NO campaign on a shoestring, and the Accord’s success appeared certain until Mulroney’s nemesis, Pierre Trudeau, reluctantly entered the fray. Speaking only once in opposition to the deal, the former prime minister’s influence was such that support for the Accord plummeted. In the end it was convincingly defeated across the country, and in particular in Quebec, albeit for different reasons. As prominent national columnist Jeffrey Simpson declared to Mulroney’s chagrin, “The Trudeau Vision Triumphed”.[xi]

The consequences of that protracted constitutional battle overshadowed almost everything else Mr. Mulroney accomplished during his time in office, at least in the short term. His former friend Lucien Bouchard left the cabinet and the PC Party to form a new separatist national party, the Bloc Quebecois, based entirely in that province. Despite a series of ups and downs that party remains to this day a major impediment to majority government for both the Liberals and the Conservatives, and an ongoing irritant in terms of national unity. Meanwhile enraged western supporters, perceiving Mulroney’s attention to be far too often directed towards Quebec, led an exodus to the new regional Reform Party.

The result was the demise of the venerable Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, which was reduced from a massive majority in 1988 to two seats in parliament in 1993. By 2003 a “new” Conservative Party of Canada led by former Reformer Stephen Harper had been formed through the supposed “merger” of the Reform/Alliance Party and the remnants of the Progressive Conservatives. It was a merger that quickly demonstrated the tail was wagging the dog.

By the time he left office in 1993 Brian Mulroney was deeply disliked, as countless public opinion polls demonstrated. His reputation was not helped by the subsequent emergence of the Airbus Affair in 1995, in which he was accused of accepting cash payments from lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber while still in office.[xii]  That debacle, incidentally, led to another consequential decision, this time on the part of Stephen Harper, who was saddled with trying to minimize the fallout for his government. In an inspired choice he recruited a prominent university president, David Johnson, to write the report absolving key players of responsibility. Having allegedly told aides after reading the report that “however much we are paying this guy it’s not enough”, Harper went on to appoint Johnson as Canada’s 28th Governor General.

Mulroney was likely not pleased with a 2016 Macleans survey ranking the performance of Canada’s prime ministers, compiled with input from 123 prominent scholars and journalists including this author. Although at #8 he placed only slightly below the middle of the 13 long-serving leaders evaluated, he was far behind his nemesis Pierre Trudeau, ranked 4th, and even behind his successor Jean Chretien at #7. [xiii]

The situation has not improved since then. A 2023 popular opinion poll conducted by the Toronto Star placed Mulroney 12 percentage points behind the elder Trudeau, and even 3 percentage points behind current prime minister Justin Trudeau as well as Jean Chretien.

Still, for many Canadians of all political stripes, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Mulroney was an old school politician who demonstrated civility and respect for opponents and for the institutions of government. He was neither a blindly committed ideologue like Stephen Harper, nor a truly malevolent populist like current Conservative Party leader PIerre Poilievre. It is instructive to note that one of Mulroney’s last appearances in public highlighted this very distinction. Speaking to delegates at the Atlantic Economic Forum in June 2023, Mulroney praised prime minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic and the free trade agreement re-negotiations with then American president Donald Trump. He urged Trudeau to ignore the “trash talk” in Ottawa, assuring him that this would be irrelevant to his legacy. Significantly, Mulroney – who favoured former Quebec premier Jean Charest in the 2022 Conservative leadership race — did not mention actual Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre at all.[xiv] Depending on the outcome of the next federal election, this may be one of the most consequential decisions of Mulroney’s career.

[i] Claire Hoy. Friends in High Places. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1987.


[iii][iii] Jeffrey Simpson. Spoils of Power: The Politics of Patronage. Toronto: Colllins, 1988.

[iv] Brooke Jeffrey. Breaking Faith: The Mulroney Legacy. Toronto: Key Porter, 1992. Pp 40-45.

[v] Op. cit. 34-37.

[vi] Globe and Mail. January 31, 1987.


[viii] Library of Parliament. Information and Technical Services Branch. “Vacancies in the House of Commons Caused by Death and Resignation Since June 25, 1966.” Doc. 63-E. 1987.

[ix] Ferguson, Rob (January 1, 2008). “One last trim: 5% GST kicks in”. Toronto Star.

[x][x] “Pro-Canada Crusade Begins”. Globe and Mail. August 29, 1992.

[xi] J. Simpson. “Trudeau’s Vision Triumphed.” Globe and Mail. Oct. 29, 1992.




p 40-45.