Rivers on Mulroney: a fish out of water in today’s conservative camps.

By Ray Rivers

March 2nd, 2024



I came to office as Prime Minister determined to place the environment at the top of our national priorities,”( Brian Mulroney 2019)

It must have broken his heart when his daughter, the first Attorney General in Doug Ford’s Ontario government, led the provincial legal case against Canada’s new carbon tax.  Brian Mulroney was too good a politician and father to criticize her but his praise of former federal environment minister McKenna said a lot about his views on climate change.

Brian Mulroney was a fish out of water in today’s conservative camps.  Unlike his federal Conservative Party compatriots today, who can’t even agree that climate change is real, he understood that one of the most important responsibilities of any government is stewarding the environment.  With that possibly in mind he argued that “In the final analysis, successful leaders do not impose unpopular ideas on the public, successful leaders make unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation.”

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney leads the chorus in singing an Irish song on stage with his wife (Mila) and U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at the conclusion of a gala performance in Quebec City March 17, 1985.

His record of achievement on the environment was impressive.  He initiated ongoing  bi-national efforts to clean-up the Great Lakes.  He negotiated the 1991 Acid Rain Accord with a reluctant American president.  He hosted and facilitated the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, a landmark and successful global environmental treaty.  And he implemented the federal Green Plan in which every member of his Cabinet was charged with environmental responsibilities.   In 2006 he was recognized as Canada’s ‘greenest’ prime minister.

Some might say he was a leader before his time when it came to the environment.  But that would be in contrast to his fellow conservative provincial leaders, particularly those today in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.  Alberta is the dirtiest province in Canada when it comes to generating climate warming pollution.  And yet its upcoming budget bans the production of new clean energy and places a whopping tax on electric vehicles.  And the province is slashing spending on forest fires management in the mistaken belief that all the pollution they pour into the air will not come back to haunt them as it has in previous years.

Mulroney speaking to students at St. Francis Xavier University

Brain Mulroney began his career as a labour lawyer and became a skilled negotiator and the master of the compromise.  However he failed twice to convince Canadians to allow changes to our constitution in order to obtain Quebec’s signature.   The Meech Lake accord and, even more so, the Charlottetown referendum, involved just too many compromises for too many Canadians.

The inadvertent upshot of those initiatives and their failures was the creation of the BLOC Québécois separatist party and the enhanced popularity of the Reform Party, both of which contributed to the ultimate demise and disappearance of the political party of Canada’s first prime minister.  This was a sad ending to a party which less than a decade earlier had claimed the largest electoral victory in Canadian history, winning over 50% of both seats and the popular vote.  Mulroney had notably won a virtual sweep of seats in Quebec, something unheard of since the Sir John A. MacDonald government had hanged Louis Riel, nearly causing a civil war.

Mulroney came into office promising to better handle government financial management than Mr. Trudeau who had apparently lost his way among inflation, stagnation and stagflation.  But Mr. Mulroney’s government never came close to balancing the budget either.  In fact the deficit in the last budgets of both leaders were almost identical in real terms.   And Mulroney’s GST coupled with continued high interest rates precipitated one of Canada’s worst recessions since the 1930’s.

“In the final analysis, successful leaders do not impose unpopular ideas on the public, successful leaders make unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation.”

There was this darker chapter to Mr. Mulroney’s career, where his ill-advised dealings with a corrupt German lobbyist led to betrayal of the very ethics which he had once employed to discipline members of his own cabinet.  But we are all human and we all make mistakes, even prime ministers.  As Mr. Mulroney said in a 2011 TVO interview, nobody is perfect.  Still Brian Mulroney continued to be regarded with respect and called upon for his counsel, including by newly minted PM Justin Trudeau over renewal of the North American trade deal.

Brian Mulroney with Nelson Mandela

Perhaps his greatest international accomplishment was leading the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa and freeing Nelson Mandela, the man who would lead that country out of its miserable past.  Mulroney played hard ball by imposing sanctions on South Africa, then softer ball convincing Mrs.Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to join with him in securing a better future for the people of that country.  To this date, he is regarded as a hero by South Africans.

Mulroney was fond of saying that history judges people primarily by what they accomplished.   And he accomplished much over his two terms in office, particularly with regard to the environment.  One’s legacy is about what is left behind for future generations after their time.  And what could be more important to our children and grandchildren than the state of the planet we leave for them.   And in that regard Brian Mulroney left a legacy for which we should all be thankful.

Ray Rivers, a Gazette Contributing Editor, writes regularly applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers




Background links:

Climate Change –   Post Mortem –   Financial Management


Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 comments to Rivers on Mulroney: a fish out of water in today’s conservative camps.

  • Phil Waggett

    Actually Ray, your headline would have been more accurate had you wrote: “A Fish out of Water in Today’s Ottawa”. Mulroney’s environmental policies did not impose significant costs on Canadians; they did not seek confrontation with the provinces, nor did they create constitutional overreach. They did not threaten to stop federal funding of roads. They did not threaten pizza ovens. They did not limit Canadians’ choices in the marketplace. Of course, it would be fairer to say that Mulroney’s policies focused on improving the lives of Canadians, not furthering a radical ideology at the expense of Canadians.

  • David

    ‘Never let an ex-Prime Minister’s death go to waste’ should have been the headline, I had to scroll through twelve other like-minded legacy media sites before I found an essay on the Brian Mulroney I remembered.
    by Kim Richard Nossal.
    March 1, 2024

  • Joe Gaetan

    I was not a fan of Mulroney’s free trade agreement. As the GM of a U.S based manufacturing concern I knew what that meant, the loss of over 300 good manufacturing jobs. I later came to appreciate Mulroney, and what he stood for. He was right on free trade and the GST, the latter costing him and his party at the polls. The Right Hon. Brian Mulroney was a great statesman, who stood against apartheid and put Canada on the map in many other ways. He will be missed.

  • Perryb

    An excellent obituary, Ray. Mulroney was a complex human being, with many positives and a few negatives. It is regrettable that over time his political opponents destroyed the progressive conservative movement (although some have shamelessly appropriated the name without the meaning). Many voters today are searching for such an alternative.

  • John Coakley

    Hear, hear! Well-said, Ray, about a PM for whom I did not vote but who, like Joe Clark and Flora McDonald, made the PC party respectable. I have a connection with Mulroney in that he and I both attended StFX University in Antigonish, NS (he graduated the year before I arrived in 1960) and I shook his hand when he (and the strikingly beautiful Mila) visited CCIW in the 80’s. I admired his post PM career, when he was an elder statesman who shared his vast experience and advice with leaders from all parties (even Bob Rae and Ed Broadbent of the Socialists!). He will be missed by all Canadians.