Great political egos don’t rest when they retire. Without advisors and restraining consequences, they are simply freer to roar.
Former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recently informed a hall of university students that Canada’s development on this continent effectively stopped when he stopped leading the country.
Here’s Maclean’s magazine John Geddes’s report:
“Which brings him to a broader point: any Canadian prime minister must not only nurture the U.S. president’s friendship, he must let the world know about it. ‘Look,’ he explains, ‘one of the main instruments of your strength is if you’re perceived as having influence in the Oval Office.’ He illustrates this with another story, one from the very last day of negotiations on the Canada-U.S. trade deal in 1987. James Baker, the U.S. treasury secretary who was heading the American bargaining team, called him to say talks had stalled. Mulroney replied that he would have to phone his friend Reagan at Camp David then. ‘You mention that,’ he says, grinning roguishly, ‘I want to tell you, the Americans, they’re transfixed.’ (So are the St. Thomas students.) Baker got the deal finalized, needless to say, within the hour.
“And that, kids, is why you gotta cultivate your connections. But one last point. Without mentioning Harper by name, Mulroney caps his reminiscing on U.S. relations by observing that Canada, in his opinion, these days lacks the inside-Washington credibility that ultimately secured his trade deal. ‘You try to get that agreement down there now,’ he says, ‘you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that done!’”
Brutal. The Mulroney legacy grows as history stands still? Students, don’t give up!
For one thing, don’t worry too much about the telephonic skills of your Prime Minister. Canada’s place in Washington is limited, but not by a Prime Minister’s personal rapport with the President of the day.
It’s cringingly vain for Mulroney to suggest that he could get between President Ronald Reagan and James Baker—his first Chief of Staff, his National Campaign Manager, and his brilliant Treasury Secretary—on any issue of importance to the United States. Reagan and the US Senate made a deal with Canada because it served America’s interests. Period.
And please don’t be intimidated by the idea that what a "legend" did nearly a generation ago can’t be repeated—even improved on—now.
There wasn’t a snowball’s logic to Brian Mulroney’s entire record of economic accomplishment.
The man was considered a political junky and ruthless cynic when he was elected in 1985. His economic pronouncements appeared ghosted; he talked mostly about business-like government and never endorsed free trade with the US. Smart public servants in Ottawa never imagined that he had the discipline or courage to reform Canada’s sales tax regime, let alone negotiate a comprehensive free trade deal with the US government.
Furthermore, the times didn’t favor such an adventure. Ontario’s government wasn’t supportive of free trade. The cheap Canadian dollar was giving Canada’s manufacturers a competitive assist. But, generally, they didn’t relish competing on an open and level playing field with the US. In addition, their Republican President wasn’t popular with Canadian voters, and their Congress was full of protectionists.
Still, into hell Mulroney went—and came out with an historic deal.
The odds that Steven Harper will try something big appear slight. Yet prospects for success could be better today than they were in 1987.
Obama is very popular and trusted in Canada. The US economy is growing again. Free traders dominate Ottawa and Washington policy circles, and they have 30 years of success to bolster their arguments. 9/11 thickened the border, but experience argues strongly that further reducing barriers and integrating economic forces is in both country’s interests. Raising middle class incomes is pre-occupying politics on both sides of the border, but it isn’t driving either side to favor protection or reliance on economic nationalism.
Tradition has it that Canada makes the first move. What does Canada need to get the ball rolling? A Canadian agenda and a Canadian Prime Minister who won’t tolerate being patronized by Brian Mulroney.