Most political leaders have to wait a certain amount of time before they see their legacies fully and properly assessed. Indeed, many don’t live to see a seri- ous evaluation of their legacies take place. Brian Mulroney, then, is one of the lucky ones.
In recent years he has seen his reputation undergo a serious transforma- tion as the real impact of his tenure is assessed with the benefit of hindsight.
His being voted the greenest prime minister in history by Corporate Knights magazine in 2006, this fall’s release of his bestselling memoirs and even Peter C. Newman’s secret tapes book have kept Mulroney’s name in the news and led many to re-evaluate their views of the man.
What excellent timing, then, for Transforming the Nation: Canada and Brian Mulroney, to be released. In this collection of essays, a diverse group of scholars, journalists and former politi- cians contribute essays on Mulroney’s policy legacy, each examining in detail his actions in power and the impact they have had in a different area.
These essays cover the gamut of Mulroney’s record from economic pol- icy to foreign affairs and everything in between. The book even includes examinations of Mulroney the man via excellent and more personal con- tributions by Bob Rae, L. Ian MacDonald and John Crosbie.
The heart of this compilation is a series of pieces from different perspec- tives recounting Mulroney’s failed attempts at constitutional renewal. Ian Peach’s essay reminds us how incredi- bly fast events moved in that time period: it was just five years from the beginning of the Meech Lake negotia- tions to the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord. Peach is too harsh on Mulroney when he says the former prime minister ”œmust carry most of the blame for both the proce- dural and substantive problems” with Meech and that these issues were ”œrooted in Mulroney’s misunderstand- ing of Canada’s changed political cul- ture.” I would argue few politicians have understood the political culture of the land they were governing better than Mulroney.
At the outset of his drive to reinte- grate Quebec into the constitu- tional fold, the political will to do so in Quebec and English Canada was strong.
It was a series of events beyond his control " Robert Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause to keep Quebec’s French sign law, the replacement of a Conservative premier in Newfoundland with Liberal Clyde Wells, Pierre Trudeau’s last-minute lashing out, etc. " that were the problems.
We are reminded of Mulroney’s too-often overlooked contributions in the realm of foreign affairs, particular- ly his vocal opposition to apartheid and support for sanctions on South Africa (which put him at odds with conservative ally Margaret Thatcher), the creation of the Francophonie sum- mit and the way in which he finessed his relationship with both Presidents Reagan and Bush to get results for Canada: the free trade agreement and a treaty on acid rain being the two biggest triumphs.
Contributors Nelson Michaud and Kim Nossal also note that the Mulroney government was a pioneer in the movement to rethink the notion of national sovereignty: Mulroney championed the concept of humanitarian intervention as early as 1990 and, of course, sent troops to assist in the Balkans.
Most of this book’s essays are well balanced and fair. Some contributions stand out more than others: former CBC journalist Christopher Waddell’s insider take on Mulroney’s two victori- ous election campaigns is one of the finest overviews I’ve read, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s dissection of the Mulroney environmental record is balanced and comprehensive.
However, several contributions delve into obvious editorializing due to what appears to be ideological opposition to Mulroney. Two exam- ples that stick out are Ann Porter’s arti- cle on Mulroney and women’s issues and Michael Behiels’s piece on attempts at constitutional reform.
While acknowledging such advancements as employment equity and parental leave legislation, Porter tries to lay blame at Mulroney’s feet for ”œdisempowering women as polit- ical actors” and says that his era’s ”œemphasis on market forces and indi- vidual responsibility undermined the very notion of systemic discrimina- tion or structural inequalities.” The idea that the Mulroney years disad- vantaged women is a bit of a stretch. First, Mulroney was personally quite committed to advancing women in politics and in the public service (although perhaps just not the type of women appreciated by Porter). Second, Mulroney’s macroeconomic accomplishments " in particular, free trade with the United States " brought about economic growth with scores of well-paying, high- quality jobs that have been hugely beneficial to both men and women. Economic liberalization and advanc- ing the cause of women is not an either/or choice; both can occur simultaneously.
As for Michael Behiels, his contribu- tion is coloured by his overt hostil- ity to Quebec nationalism, the ”œtwo nations” vision of Canada and the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, and he even accuses Mulroney of ”œhigh-stakes political blackmail, constant ver- bal harassment, and occasional physical bullying tactics” with provincial pre- miers in the days before Meech Lake’s demise. For Behiels, the Mulroney- Bourassa alliance was dangerous for the country and one senses his delight that these reform attempts failed. The Mulroney years were eventful and his record far from perfect. Perhaps more than any- thing, they were conse- quential. Transforming the Nation is an honest, detailed and fair assessment of his nine years in office and the consequences that have come as a result of his activist agenda.