The Secret Mulroney Tapes

I have never hidden the fact that, like a vast majority of Canadians, I profoundly, viscerally disliked former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and it wasn’t only because he was a Conservative. In fact, relatively speaking, that was just a small part of my reason to dislike him. The trouble I and many Canadians had with him was his tremendous ego, his arrogant confidence, and his visible belief that his historic parliamentary majorities (among other accomplishments) made him one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers. I think Canadians prefer a bit of modesty in their politicians and want a say in making that determination of greatness. That said, there is no doubt that Mulroney has/had a charming way about him, but it was the charm of a snake’s oil salesman that didn’t inspire confidence, thus undermining his credibility. What’s odd is that “tremendous ego” and “arrogant confidence” are attributes that can rightly be ascribed to P.E. Trudeau as well, and I can’t put my finger on why our collective memories are infinitely kinder on Trudeau than they’re ever likely to be on Mulroney.

The Secret Mulroney Tapes aired last night on CBC TV—“the infamous conversations between former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and journalist Peter C. Newman.” While the selected excerpts reinforced my impression that the former is really full of himself, they did bring me to pause and think about his legacy to this nation, good and bad. We all remember him for “ramming” through the Free Trade Agreement (FTA, now NAFTA)—he even used that verb while talking to Newman—and the much-hated “value-added tax,” the 7-percent Goods and Services Tax (GST). But what about his attempts at reforming the Constitution (first Meech, then Charlottetown)? And to be fair, I have to admit that on that front, he tried to do more in his nine years in office than the Liberals have in their 12 years in office. I think the point that still irks many, though, is that even though Canada would have emerged better if either attempts had succeeded, it still feels like his greatest concern or motivation was to go down in the history books as being The One Who Saved Canada and not so much the saving for its own sake.

In one segment of the documentary’s “candid interviews with Newman in which he discusses his interviewing style” [with Mulroney], Newman said something rather intriguing about Mulroney and truth, namely that [and I’m paraphrasing] whether or not Mulroney is telling The Truth, he did/does believe that what he’s saying is true. Another interesting observation by Newman is about Mulroney’s sense of betrayal towards Newman, and when Newman was asked if indeed he had betrayed Mulroney, he not only replied that he hadn’t, but that there’s a difference between actually betraying someone and someone feeling that he’s been betrayed.

One excerpt from Mulroney that intrigued me was taped immediately after the salvaging of the Charlottetown Accord. Mulroney claimed that every word from the failed Meech Lake Accord could be found in the refashioned Charlottetown Accord. I’d like to have the time to investigate how true that statement is, for if it is true, then what made the Charlottetown Accord so unpalatable to Québec? I still maintain the C.A. failed because it was too complex and that many outside Québec voted against it because of other sections not related to Québec. (I’ve personally witnessed such opposition.) But history has been written to conclude that, in the end, the failure of the C.A. meant that Canada said No to Québec and Québec said No to Canada. Yet, like most complicated political situations, I don’t think the outcome of the ’92 national referendum can be summarized in such simple terms.

Anyway, I can’t say I like Mulroney more than I did before, but I do see him slightly differently and—dare I say—mildly more favorably, especially in light of the current Liberals’ bunglings and inactions on the constitutional file since taking office in ’93.