Chairman's Desk

What Brian Mulroney knew about politics and Canada that is missing today

As much as victory’s highs are as ephemeral as a shooting star, defeat’s bitter sting lingers in a way never quite forgotten.

For me, Election Night 1993 will never be forgotten.

Peter Mansbridge summarized it best, “The Jays have painted the country blue. The Liberals have painted it red.”

With barely a sliver of blue on the electoral map, the Progressive Conservative party was reduced not to rubble but quarry dust — two seats.

The “grand conservative coalition” fell. The regionalist Reform and Bloc parties rose. And while Brian Mulroney was not on the 1993 ballot, his record was. The Brian Mulroney era was decidedly over.

Observing the sheer scale of the loss, political leaders across this country were quick to draw a lesson.

The wrong one.

Where they saw a warning sign in that defeat, they should have seen a road map to success.

Political leaders come to office with fundamentally different views of success. For some, the definition of success is governing in a way that ensures the support of “the base.” This approach posits it was, of course, the base that elected you and it is, to the base, you owe fealty.

Others believe that the political capital that comes with success must be spent to backstop the support of the base, to be sure, but also on both the issues of the day that come across a prime minister’s desk and the transformational projects that build nations.

Brian Mulroney understood this better than any prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald. And so, spend it he did. Not simply on his own narrow interests but in the interests of the country he was elected to serve.

Today, our leaders must confront that same challenge.

The problems Canada faces are neither transitory nor benign, they are structural. Structural problems require structural solutions. And structural solutions take vast amounts of political capital.

Canada not only has a productivity emergency, it has a political capital deficit. In our hyper-fragmented media landscape, politics has become a game of inches.

And nations are not built an inch at a time.

In Canada, building a national consensus in real-time is almost impossible. That’s why political leaders need to have the courage to act and the willingness to spend political capital BEFORE that consensus emerges.

Anyone living under the fantasy that our problems in housing, homelessness, health care and immigration will be solved by anything less than major, far-sighted, national initiatives is gravely mistaken.

In his time, Brian Mulroney identified the structural challenges that faced Canada and steered a course to meet them. To boost our country’s competitiveness, he undertook permanent structural reform of our tax system. He faced down the pernicious evil of apartheid by using his personal political capital to confront racism in its most vile form.

And, crucially, he spent political capital not just by appeasing his base, but by seizing opportunities. Case in point: free trade. Mulroney knew there would be winners and losers. And that many of those losers would be Conservative voters. But he also understood Canada’s economy desperately required creative destruction in order to create a more resilient, competitive one.

The fact that Mulroney suffered politically as he implemented these structural changes is not to be ignored.

It is to be emphasized.

History speaks for itself. Not one of Mulroney’s successors, even after years of attacking the GST and free trade, dared to significantly alter course on either issue.

And so, at this moment, when it looks like there will soon be another change in our political era, let’s remember the true Mulroney legacy. The legacy of nation building. And in doing so, let’s look at the opportunity for our leaders: not to simply aspire to greatness but to achieve it.

Let our leaders believe in Canada more than we sometimes believe in ourselves. Let them dream of a Canada “fair and generous, tolerant and just.” Let them serve it tirelessly to ensure that dream comes true for all Canadians. For those who are struggling to make ends meet today. For those who feel left behind today.

And in doing so, let them set the table for those Canadians who are yet to come.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on March 10, 2024.

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