Lessons from the past: Brian Mulroney and the failure of Canadian conservatism in the 1980s
By Mark Wegierski
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney clearly lacked what the neoconservative political writer William Kristol and others have called the ability to "govern strategically", something which Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau did so successfully for so long. To "govern strategically" means to have a set of certain fundamental policy objectives (i.e., what is commonly called an "agenda"), which springs from one's personal philosophical framework, and to clearly enunciate it and fight for it in the political arena. Those who do not "govern strategically" find themselves perpetually on the defensive, reacting to developments shaped by others, fighting on other's terrain, at someone else's chosen time and place, and being judged by other's criteria. Without a fundamental intellectual framework or overarching "vision" (something to really believe in and fight for), Brian was condemned to failure. Although successful in gaining formal power, he was incapable of exercising it de facto. His two terms ended in disaster.
The two most memorable accomplishments of Mulroney were the free trade deal (something that had long been opposed by the Conservative Party – and supported by the Liberal Party -- for most of Canadian history), and the Goods & Services Tax (GST), Canada's version of a value-added tax, which largely helped only the Liberals after 1993 in allowing them to have huge government spending and balance the budget at the same time. The two major attempts to conciliate Quebec, the Meech Lake Accord, and the Charlottetown Agreements, both failed.
To use the terminology of the political thinker Vilfredo Pareto, Mulroney could be seen as a super-cunning "fox", who lacks the backbone and principles of a "lion", and so was unable to effectively exercise his power, however successful he was in attaining it in the purely formal sense.
To a large extent, the failure of Brian Mulroney in the 1980s reflected the general failure of the federal Progressive Conservative party in enunciating a clear and consistent philosophy and set of policies, a signal failure to take advantage of one of their rare and fleeting moments of electoral triumph. Saddled with the leadership of Brian Mulroney, the domination of key ministerial portfolios by the "Clark clique", and the ever-present shadow of Dalton Camp and associates (who had "knifed" John Diefenbaker and carefully "guided" the party through twenty years of Liberal hegemony), the federal PC party was well-headed for the disaster of 1993, while apparently almost wholly ignorant of the social forces working to bring it down. PC party members proved incapable of turning around the direction of the party even for purely personal, selfish reasons. The PC party appeared incapable of acting even in its narrowly-conceived self-interest, let alone for the sake of higher principles.
Purely from the standpoint of pragmatic politics, the embracing by the federal PCs of Liberal and NDP positions, policies, and programs, was a path to political suicide. While alienating and confusing core PC supporters (who indeed turned in large numbers to Preston Manning's Reform Party), these sorts of policies failed to win over convinced liberals and socialists. Given the choice between PCs enacting liberal policies, and Liberals enacting liberal policies, whom were the more liberal-oriented sections of the electorate more likely to choose? This argument against the PCs adopting liberal policies is also instructive in terms of the situations in Ontario and New Brunswick provincial politics in the 1980s. Indeed, the PCs were solidly trounced in both provinces in the latter half of the 1980s.
It does not seem likely that Mulroney was handed the second-largest majority in Canadian history to continue and extend the policies of previous Liberal governments. The adoption by the federal PCs of Liberal and NDP policies and programs could be seen as a frustration of the democratic process, which presupposes that the voters have the right to choose from a variety of widely-differing, widely-contrasting, platforms and philosophies, to make at least some fundamental choices. As Mulroney drew ever closer to Liberal and NDP policies and programs, he weakened not only the future electoral prospects of the federal PCs, he also made a mockery of that trust which people put in him.
By "governing strategically" with his 211-seat majority, Mulroney could have, even in four years, dramatically changed the shape and direction of all of Canadian society, as Trudeau had done during his sixteen years in power. As society changed in response to his initiatives, Mulroney would have found that his social base and support would have grown, rather than shrunk. Rather than a helpless pawn of other tendencies and powers, Mulroney would have himself become the chief focus of power in Canadian society, as befits a democratically-elected Prime Minister. Rather than presiding over yet another brief Conservative party interval, Mulroney might well have found himself leading Canada proudly to the Twenty-First Century, as the head of an effective and dynamic Tory party.
Canada has today reached a situation driving towards the most extreme forms of "political correctness" and of the ideological hegemony of what critics have called "the managerial-therapeutic regime". It's possible that only the vast, resource-based wealth of Canada allows the country to avoid some more obviously dystopic and violent outcomes. The weakness and incoherence of the "Centre-Right Opposition", especially in the 1980s, has contributed to the inability of Canadian society today to somehow temper vast, onrushing societal velocities and trajectories.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.
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