Mulroney on the Record

In a rare interview, the ex-PM speaks out on free trade, Quebec, America, the GST, and his legacy.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney believes that Canada should vigorously pursue a hemispheric free trade agreement that includes Latin America. “I think that the government would be well advised to look again at what I think is a visionary initiative throughout the hemisphere, with Canada playing a leading role,” said Mulroney, whose 1984-1993 government signed the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement in 1989 and NAFTA three years later. “We have the credentials.”

Free trade was just one of many policy issues that the former prime minister discussed in a rare interview ? one of his first since his recovery from a severe bout of illness last year ? with Canadian Business. A longer version of his conversations with editor Joe Chidley appears in the Sept. 11-Sept. 25 issue of the magazine.

In the interview, Mulroney spoke at length on the political situation in Quebec, where premier Jean Charest is widely expected to call an election by next spring. Mulroney predicts that Charest will win the election, but adds that another Parti Québécois government ? and another referendum on Quebec sovereignty ? is inevitable “at some point” in the future: “Eventually, in as much as the Parti Québécois is the official opposition in the province, at some point they are going to come into power, and they're going to try [a referendum] again,” said Mulroney. “That is extremely unsettling and always challenging.”

However, Mulroney, whose 1984-1993 Tory government's two constitutional accords (Meech Lake in 1989 and Charlottetown in 1991) ended in failure, said that now is not the time to reopen the constitutional portfolio to try to bring Quebec on as a signatory, even though he still believes that Meech was a “low-cost” solution to the separatist challenge. “To have Quebec's signature on the Constitution would have ? well, it would take away the biggest argument that the separatists have,” said Mulroney. But, he added, “You can't fight old battles.”

Federal Liberal leadership hopeful Michael Ignatieff has publicly endorsed reopening the Constitution to include Quebec, a move that rival Bob Rae has dismissed.

In the Canadian Business interview, Mulroney also called upon the government to develop a comprehensive productivity agenda, which would address education, research & development and tax policy in co-ordination with the provinces, saying that Canadians “should be less than fully satisfied” when it comes to growth in per capita income. “In a globalized world like this one, where we're competing with everyone from Singapore to Russia to India to the United States, we have to be smarter, better educated and trained, and more productive,” said Mulroney “And we are not there.”

The ex-PM praised Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper ? whom he compared favourably to the late Ronald Reagan ? and his performance so far, including efforts to strengthen Canadian relations with the United States. Mulroney cited the recent agreement to end the long-standing trade dispute over softwood lumber. “Harper understands that an excellent relationship between the prime minister of Canada and the president of the United Sates is first and foremost, at all times, in Canada's national interest.”

Mulroney, who during his time in office was often criticized by Canadian nationalists for being too close to U.S. presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, reserved his harshest comments for those who castigate “anyone who developed a good relationship with the president as some kind of a poodle. They called Margaret Thatcher Reagan's poodle. This is the way the intellectual weaklings function.”

He also defended the legacy of his major policy initiatives, which include free trade, the GST, environmental legislation, privatization and the failed constitutional efforts. “Was the general thrust of them right? Did I properly anticipate a globalized world 20 years down the road?? I think, in a general way ? not perfectly, that's for damn sure ? but in a general way, I think that our policies have met that threshold.”

Mulroney, 67, is now a senior partner at the law firm of Ogilvy Renault and sits on several corporate boards of directors. He said that he is currently writing his memoirs, which he hopes to publish next year.