Brian Mulroney gives the Ontario Tory caucus a pep talk

He’s been out of public life for more than a quarter of a century. But Canada’s 18th prime minister still has valuable lessons to share
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 28, 2019
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the official opening of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in September. (Riley Smith/CP)

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Brian Mulroney loves to tell this self-deprecating joke: “I walked into an elevator one day, and a nice old woman looks at me and says, ‘Do you know, you look a lot like former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Must make you mad, eh?’”

Yes, there was a time when more people believed Elvis was still alive than were prepared to vote for Mulroney when he still led the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. His popularity was that low.

But I’m guessing it’s got to be pretty good being Brian Mulroney these days. 

After all, Mr. Mulroney, you reached your 80th birthday earlier this year and celebrated your 46th wedding anniversary with your wife, Mila. Your four children are all successfully launched in their various careers and have provided you with numerous grandchildren as well.

You’ve experienced one of the most topsy-turvy careers of any politician this country has ever produced. You won the biggest majority government — 211 seats — in 1984 when you led the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. You won a second consecutive majority four years later. No Tory leader had done that since Sir John A. Macdonald himself, and no one’s done it since.

Yes, you’ve experienced your share of ignominy as well. The national PC party is no more. It basically blew up after you left public life in 1993, and its successor, the Conservative Party of Canada, has never felt the same way about you as the old PC Party did. I suspect the feeling is mutual.  And there was that public inquiry 10 years ago after you got mixed up with a shady German arms dealer named Karlheinz Schreiber. No one’s led an error-free life, you reminded us at the time.

But, 10 years later, you’re arguably the most significant éminence grise for conservatives in the whole country. You’re still a hot ticket in the private sector and, having seen you speak, I’m qualified to say that you can still deliver like almost no one else out there.

After Doug Ford became Ontario’s 26th premier, you were one of the few former heads of government the new premier trusted to come in and offer advice. And, boy, did he need your advice, having had no experience in provincial politics himself and having a chief of staff who was equally as raw.

I wonder whether, at that time, you also gave Premier Ford the advice former Ontario premier Bill Davis once gave you, after you became Canada’s 18th prime minister and got into some trouble at the polls in your first term.

“Brian, the people who get you there aren’t necessarily the same people to keep you there,” Davis said.

That was surely true for Ford, who parted ways with his chief of staff Dean French earlier this year, after it had become apparent that there’d be a mutiny in the PC backbenches if French didn’t leave.

Another indication of how seriously the current premier takes your advice came when you were invited last week to address the PC caucus in a secret little conclave.

From what one Queen’s Park insider tell me, you talked about how the PC government got out of the gates rather badly in 2018 but has been noticeably growing in maturity ever since French’s departure. It takes a while for governments to get their sea legs, especially if they’ve been in opposition for the past 15 years and the new leader has never been an elected MPP before. In Ontario, we haven’t had a first-time premier with zero elective experience at Queen’s Park in 100 years. So you acknowledged the obvious — the first year was rough.

But you also reminded the caucus that it’s crucial to stick together and back the leader if the government hopes to be re-elected. You certainly had your dark moments when you were PM, and, presumably, you shared some of those war stories with the caucus in your 45-minute talk.  And I’ll bet you told them that, even when you were at 13 per cent in popularity, not a single Tory MP crossed the floor or badmouthed you in public, because they knew you cared so much about them. I’m sure the premier took note of the fact that keeping your caucus close is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, while French no doubt was loyal to the premier, he also had a reputation for dressing down MPPs in front of their colleagues, which is a horrible way to engender loyalty in your backbenchers.

I hear French’s replacement as chief of staff, James Wallace, was in this special caucus meeting (I guess the only other non-elected guy in there besides yourself?). Wallace surely has to get a ton of credit for transforming the government from a train wreck into a more mature, smoother-running operation. Heck, Premier Ford has even taken to playing Captain Canada in recent days, reminding his fellow premiers to tone down the vicious rhetoric and pledging to work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on nation-building. Betcha didn’t see that coming!

I know you complimented the premier on those efforts and encouraged him to keep at it. You’ve told me numerous times over the years, Mr. Mulroney, that keeping the country together is job one for every prime minister. I think you could say the same for the premier of Ontario. In fact, Ontario’s 17th premier, John Robarts, once gave his successor, Bill Davis, that very advice: “Billy,” he said, “the country doesn’t work well if the prime minister of Canada and the premier of Ontario aren’t together on the big things.”  Ford must be taking that to heart.

Finally, I know nothing could have given you as much joy during your talk as looking out at the 73-member PC caucus and seeing your daughter, Caroline, in the crowd. I remember that, when I interviewed you for the book I wrote on Bill Davis, you told me that everyone had their eye on your son Ben to go into politics first, given that he was a good communicator, smart, and, of course, very well known because of his work on television.

“But you watch Caroline,” you told me. “She’s going to be a star.”

At that time, nobody was talking about Caroline. But you were right. She won her riding in the 2018 election, and, as attorney general, had a roughish first year — like the rest of the government. But she’s clearly found her footing as Ford’s new transportation minister, in charge of seeing through the premier’s $28.5 billion rapid-transit vision. I can only imagine how proud you were addressing a caucus with your only daughter in its midst.

I tried to get your daughter to tell me how she felt about the whole thing. But your daughter is far more cautious with reporters than you ever were when you were in politics. She would only tell me: “I cannot comment on what happens or does not happen in caucus. Good luck with your story.”

Too bad. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at that caucus meeting. Anyway, Mr. Mulroney, thanks for listening.

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