Brian Mulroney, controversial Canadian Tory prime minister who came unstuck on Quebec – obituary

Brian Mulroney: failed to reverse the profligate spending of Pierre Trudeau's Liberals
Brian Mulroney: failed to reverse the profligate spending of Pierre Trudeau's Liberals - Boris Spremo
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Brian Mulroney, the former Progressive Conservative Canadian Prime Minister, who has died aged 84, was elected in 1984 to reverse the profligacy of the Trudeau Liberals and end what was widely perceived as fiscal favouritism to Quebec, but did nothing of the kind.

Pierre Trudeau’s addiction to fiscal deficits and inter-regional money transfers was maintained and compounded by a deal between the Mulroney federal government and the Quebec nationalists who demanded to be recognised as a “distinct society” within Canada. He made two attempts to devolve substantial powers to the provinces, since, as Trudeau observed, he was afraid to seem to confer such powers on Quebec alone.

Canada was already one of the most decentralised countries in the world, with provincial control of property, civil rights, education, most social programmes, most labour and cultural matters and virtually all natural resources. To this Mulroney proposed to add immigration, telecommunications, the composition of the federal senate and Supreme Court and, ultimately, the central bank.

Brian Mulroney with Queen Elizabeth II in 1987
Brian Mulroney with Queen Elizabeth II in 1987 - Doug Griffin

The first of these attempts, the so-called Meech Lake Accord of 1987, met its doom in 1990 when the provincial governments of Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to ratify before a June deadline. Chances of success had been undermined by a decision by the Quebec legislature that all external commercial signs must be in French only. This perceived repression of the language of over 70 per cent of Canadians (who kept Quebec afloat through fiscal transfers), shattered any chances of success and led Mulroney’s traditional supporters in English Canada to flock in droves to the Reform Party which demanded an end to concessions to Quebec.

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord sparked a further surge in Quebec separatism and Mulroney’s supporters in the province also started to desert him, drifting to the Bloc Quebecois. This led to another round of meetings which culminated in the second attempt, the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. The accord was put to Canadian voters in a referendum in October 1992 at which all three established federal parties and all 10 provincial governments advocated a Yes vote. When 54 per cent of Canadians voted No, Mulroney did the honourable thing and resigned.

At the general election that followed, Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, plunged to a shattering defeat by the Liberals under Jean Chrétien. Although the Tories polled 16 per cent nationally, the vagaries of the Canadian electoral system delivered just two Conservative MPs.

Margaret Thatcher with Brian Mulroney at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nassau, 1985
Margaret Thatcher with Brian Mulroney at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nassau, 1985 - John Shelley Collection/Avalon

One of six children of Irish Catholic parents, Martin Brian Mulroney was born on March 20 1939 at Baie-Comeau, Quebec, a small lumber town in the eastern part of the province, where his father worked as a paper mill electrician. He grew up fluent in both French and English and was educated at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Chatham, New Brunswick, and at St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, where he became active in the campus Progressive Conservative group and made his name as a star debater. He attended the 1956 Progressive Conservative leadership convention in Ottawa where he threw his support behind John Diefenbaker, with whom he became a personal friend.

After graduating Mulroney at first pursued a law degree at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he helped the provincial premier Robert Stanfield with his successful 1960 re-election campaign. But he neglected his studies and dropped out of Dalhousie in his first year. He resumed his studies the following year at Université Laval in Quebec City.

After graduating in 1964, Mulroney joined a large Montreal law firm. Though he failed his bar exams twice, the firm kept him on and he was eventually admitted to the Quebec bar in 1965. He specialised in labour law and proved superb at the arts of conciliation and negotiation, ending several strikes along the Montreal waterfront.

Brian Mulroney with his wife Mila in 1984
Brian Mulroney with his wife Mila in 1984 - PONOPRESSE

When in 1966 the president of the Progressive Conservatives Dalton Camp ran for re-election in what was widely believed to be a referendum on Diefenbaker’s leadership, Mulroney threw his support behind Camp, though as an old friend of the prime minister’s he did his best to keep a low profile. With Camp’s narrow victory, Diefenbaker called a 1967 leadership convention in Toronto at which Mulroney supported the eventual victor Robert Stanfield. He then became a chief adviser to the new leader in Quebec.

Mulroney’s big break came in 1974 when the Quebec premier Robert Bourassa set up a commission to investigate dirty goings-on among unions working at James Bay, Canada’s largest hydroelectric project. The chairman of the commission, Robert Cliche, a former leader of the provincial New Democratic Party, invited Mulroney, a former student of his, to join the commission. The commission’s enquiries, which uncovered Mafia infiltration of the unions, made Mulroney well-known in Quebec.

When Stanfield resigned the party leadership in 1974, after three national defeats in a row, Mulroney, despite never having run for elected office, was encouraged to stand as someone who might appeal to voters in Quebec, traditionally a Liberal stronghold. Despite a slick and expensive campaign, he lost to Joe Clark on the second ballot.

Brian Mulroney signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992
Brian Mulroney signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992 - DAVE CHAN

Following this disappointment, Mulroney decided to pursue a career in business, becoming executive vice president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada then, in 1977, company president. While he acquired a reputation as a highly effective business leader, joining several more corporate boards, he also went through a period of depression and alcohol abuse from which he recovered, giving up alcohol entirely in 1979.

By 1982, even though the Progressive Conservatives were riding high in the polls, the leadership of Joe Clark was being questioned and Mulroney, while publicly endorsing Clark, organised behind the scenes moves to unseat him. When Clark resigned in order to run again at the 1983 leadership convention, Mulroney, despite still not being a member of Parliament, ran against him again and beat him on the fourth ballot. Two months later, he entered Parliament on a by-election as the MP for Central Nova in Nova Scotia.

In the subsequent federal elections held in September 1984, Mulroney’s strong following in Quebec proved decisive and the Conservatives ousted the Liberals under John Turner, winning the largest majority in Parliament in Canadian history, including 58 seats out of a possible 75 from Quebec.

Conrad Black with Brian Mulroney, then a Montreal lawyer, in 1979
Conrad Black with Brian Mulroney, then a Montreal lawyer, in 1979 - David Cooper

At first the new administration was considered to be a breath of fresh air, but the gloss soon began to wear off due to growing resentment over Quebec, and a series of gaffes and scandals. While his large majority seemed to give Mulroney a free hand, in practice his support was based on a “grand coalition” of competing and mutually incompatible interests – including Quebec nationalists.

At the international level, Mulroney was notably successful. He built up strong personal relationships with other leaders, particularly Ronald Reagan at whose funeral he would be invited – with Lady Thatcher – to give an address. He made a name as a leading opponent of apartheid, clashing with Mrs Thatcher over sanctions on South Africa, and began the process of mobilising international efforts to combat global warming. His success abroad enabled him to overcome unpopularity in his first term by focusing his re-election efforts overwhelmingly on free trade with the United States, which bore fruit in an agreement signed in election year in 1988, but which was opposed by other parties.

Mulroney’s problems were compounded in his second term by economic recession, a series of bitter clashes with the Senate and the failure of his constitutional devolution plans. In 1989 he controversially invoked emergency powers in the constitution allowing him to ask the Queen to appoint eight new Senators in order to force through an unpopular new sales tax. Despite the new tax, annual budget deficits ballooned to record levels, reaching $42 billion in his last year of office, close to 100 per cent of GDP, further weakening the Canadian dollar and damaging Canada’s international credit rating.

Brian Mulroney at the White House with Ronald Reagan in 1986
Brian Mulroney at the White House with Ronald Reagan in 1986 - Diana Walker

Another blow to Mulroney’s support was dealt by the decline of cod stocks in Atlantic Canada which necessitated a moratorium on the cod fishery there, putting an end to a large portion of the Newfoundland fishing industry, and causing serious economic hardship.

By 1992 support for Mulroney in the polls had fallen to 11 per cent. It had recovered somewhat by the time he stepped down in February the following year, but in his last days in office he succeeded in undermining any lingering hopes of a Conservative revival by embarking on a lavish international “farewell” tour at taxpayers’ expense and by failing to vacate the prime minister’s official residence for some time after his departure.

After leaving office Mulroney revived his business career, acquiring a clutch of directorships. His intense unpopularity at the time of his resignation led many Conservatives to distance themselves from him at first, though his past continued to come back to haunt them.

In 1995 Mulroney sued the Canadian government for libel over allegations that he had taken kick-backs while in office from a German-Canadian lobbyist called Karlheinz Schreiber. These were said to relate to Air Canada’s C$1.8 billion acquisition of jets from Airbus in 1988. He secured an apology and C$2.1m settlement in 1997. But in 2007 Schreiber, who was fighting extradition to Germany to face charges including bribery, claimed Mulroney had reached a deal with him just before leaving office in 1993 to lobby the Canadian government for Thyssen, his client, and said he later paid Mulroney C$300,000 in cash, a payment which Mulroney allegedly asked him to “hush up”.

Brian Mulroney in 2009, speaking on the 25th anniversary of his becoming prime minister
Brian Mulroney in 2009, speaking on the 25th anniversary of his becoming prime minister - Shaun Best

Mulroney subsequently admitted to a parliamentary ethics committee that he had indeed taken C$225,000 from Schreiber but claimed the agreement was to promote Thyssen armoured vehicles outside Canada and denied any wrongdoing. He said he had destroyed records related to the transactions and received the payments in cash at Schreiber’s insistence. During the earlier libel hearings he had testified under oath that he “never had any dealings” with Schreiber.

In 2005 Peter Newman, a former Mulroney confidant, published The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister, a book based largely on conversations with Mulroney which Newman had taped with his knowledge as part of his research for a biography that remained unpublished, due, Newman claimed, to Mulroney’s failure to honour an agreement to allow him access to confidential papers. The tapes featured Mulroney claiming to have been Canada’s greatest prime minister since John A Macdonald, and trashing the reputations of other politicians including his successor Kim Campbell, whom he described as “a very vain person who blew the 1993 election”.

The book led to an outcry and an entertaining sequel at the annual Press Gallery Dinner in Ottawa, to which Mulroney sent a taped message in which he formally acknowledged the various dignitaries present before delivering the shortest speech of the night: “Peter Newman: Go f--- yourself. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, and good night.” Mulroney’s own memoirs, published in 2007, won critical praise but had nothing like the same impact.

Mulroney was sworn into the Privy Council for Canada in 1984 and appointed Companion of the Order of Canada in 1998.

He married, in 1973, Mila Pivnički, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

Brian Mulroney, born March 20 1939, died February 29 2024

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