To many Canadians, Brian Mulroney seems an open book: a politician of the old school who owes his triumphs more to the opposition's weakness than to his own intrinsic strength. But behind the "jutting jaw, the smile that seems a little too self-satisfied, and the artful rhetoric is a man of mesmerizing personal charm, astonishing political cunning, and overreaching ambition." Although there were many factors why Brian Mulroney was elected as prime minister in 1988, the two major issues that were an advantage for him were: his image in the public's eye and the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Canada's ability to compete on a world market was of primary importance to Brian Mulroney, one that he felt had been eroded by years of Liberal social spending. Canadian economic success could only be secured by access to foreign markets; this Mulroney achieved through the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
Martin Brian Mulroney was born in Baie-Comeau, Quebec in 1939, the son of an electrician. At fourteen, the young Mulroney went to St. Thomas, a Catholic high school in Chatham, New Brunswick. In 1955, he attended St. Frands Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, studying arts and commerce before majoring in political science. After graduating with honours in 1959, Mulroney started studying law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, then transferred to Laval University in Quebec City, a year later. In 1964, he was offered a position with the prestigious law firm of Howard, Cate, Ogilvy et al, and moved to Montreal to work with them.
One of his first challenges as a lawyer was working on Laurent Picard's Commission of Inquiry on the St. Lawrence Ports, where he gained experience as a negotiator in labour relations. Mulroney first came into prominence as a lawyer when he was a commissioner in the Cliche Commission of Inquiry into the Quebec construction industry, set up by Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa in 1974. The commission uncovered unprecedented corruption and violence in the construction industry. As a result of this high-profile report, Mulroney became well-known in Quebec.
He had been involved in politics since his university days, when he joined the Conservative party and campaigned for the Nova Scotia Tories in 1956. Mulroney also participated in campus politics and served as prime minister of St. Francis Xavier's model parliament. While at Laval, he was elected Vice-President of the Conservative Students' Federation and by 1961 he was a student advisor to Diefenbaker. As a lawyer in Montreal, he continued working for the Conservatives behind the scenes, producing pamphlets, raising money and seeking out candidates.
In 1976, Mulroney ran for federal leadership of the Conservative party, but lost to Joe Clark on the 3rd ballot. Although he was well known in Quebec as a result of the Cliche Commission, he was not as well known to the party outside the province. Furthermore, "the fact that he had never been elected to Parliament was seen by many as a handicap." After the convention, Mulroney accepted an offer of Executive Vice-president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada and was appointed President the following year.
In 1983, he again ran for Conservative leadership. He was the only "bilingual Quebec candidate, and as such, his ability to appeal to Tories across the country" was considered a great advantage. Mulroney won the leadership and gained his first seat in the House of Commons through a by-election in the riding of Central Nova. In the election the following year, Mulroney led the Conservatives to the greatest majority in Canadian history, winning 211 seats in the House of Commons.
Brian Mulroney was also a party animal, having "attended his first PC convention in 1956 as vice- chairman of Youth for Diefenbaker." He learned his French easily, growing up bilingual in the company pulp town of Baie-Comeau. Mulroney thrived on campus Tory politics and networking. "Unlike Clark, Mulroney finished his law degree and began making a name for himself practising in Montreal." Take Mulroney as leader and you took a man who had shown that it was possible to win in life-to rise from the working class of a frontier town right to the top, and be bilingual and a good party man to boot, and have a beautiful wife and no apparent bad habits. No one ever found a smoking gun or a bloody knife in Mulroney's hands. Mulroney was also known as a "patroneux, who would deliver on the judgeships and senatorships and directorships the Liberals had monopolized for twenty years." Everyone knew that Mulroney was a people person, a networker, rather than an idea man or a policy man. His critics said he was as shallow as a "bird bath and always had been, a fair clone of Sam Malone, the Irish bartender on the popular television series "Cheers." " But many who got their kicks out of being delegates at leadership conventions were also fans of sitcoms and soaps. Mulroney was obviously not dim-witted, and he had moved sensibly and fashionably with the intellectual tides-presenting himself as a moderate progressive in 1976, a more free-enterprise, market- oriented, business-friendly candidate in 1983.
Furthermore, Brian Mulroney's decision in signing the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the United States had made a big difference for Brian Mulroney, as a president, and Canada as a country. For Canadians, free trade was much more than a trade agreement with the United States. It was a major political event in Canada, involving the decision to seek free trade, the negotiation of the agreement, the battle of the two nationalist visions, and the 1988 election.
It can also serve as an industrial policy to bring about restructing and adjustments in the economy. "And it was primarily as an industrial poicy, loosely defined, that free trade was advocated as the principal long-term solution to Canada's economic problems by the Macdonald Royal Commission." According to the commission's analysis, the source of Canada's economic problems could be found in manufacturing sector that produces at too high a cost for too small a market. Free trade would at once expand the market and remove the protective barriers that insulate inefficient firms from competition.
The significant partisan advantages that free trade offered the Conservative government also made the option of "comprehensive negotiations attractive." Mulroney was determined to offer a clear alternative to the centralizing, interventionist policies of the Trudeau Liberals and to build a lasting power base for his party. A policy that was market oriented and had broad appeal in Western Canada and Quebec served both ends. The summer of 1985 also saw Mulroney and his ministers under fire for a lack of clear direction and purpose. Free trade offered the "prospect of immediate partisan advantage to a government in search of a major policy on which to set sail." For all these reasons, free trade looked like a policy whose time had finallly arrived.
"Throughout our history, trade has been critical to Canada's livelihood. Now, almost one third of what we produce is exported. Few countries in the world are so dependent on trade. This trend ultimately threatens the jobs of many Canadians and the living standards of the nation as a whole. We must confront this threat. We must reverse this trend. To do so, we need a better, a fairer, and a more predictable trade relationship with the United States. At stake are more than two million jobs which depend directly on Canadian access to the U.S. market." History, no doubt, will properly credit Brian Mulroney and the government he led but it is safe to say that from 1984 to 1993 Brian Mulroney and his government brought about a major revolution in Canadian politics and fundamentally changed the way the government operates. This included "reversing unchecked government growth with a steady program of budget cuts and freezes, attacks on inflation, the free-trade treaty with the U.S. followed by NAFTA, full-scale tax reform including ridding the country of the job debilitating Manufacturer Sales Tax by replacing it with the G.S.T., and, constitutionally with the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreements." Both were historic accomplishments marking the first and only time since 1867 that unanimity among First Ministers was achieved in Canada--and in the case of Charlottetown this unanimity extended to the territorial governments and four major aboriginal associations. Both agreements were courageous attempts to foster Canadian unity and we should be proud of the PC Party for the leadership and courage they have demonstrated on this front.