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Brian Mulroney and the failure of Canadian conservatism in the 1980s (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 15, 2017

Brian Mulroney may be one of the most disappointing Prime Ministers Canada has ever had. As leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party, Mulroney at that time ostensibly represented the main focus of what could be called the “Centre-Right Opposition” in Canada. The use of the term “Centre-Right Opposition” is meant to suggest the perennial underdog status of that option in Canadian politics, especially after the federal election of 1963, when Liberal Lester B. Pearson defeated the staunch Tory, John Diefenbaker. As each successive decade rolled by, it could be argued that the social and cultural hold of left-liberalism on the populace has increased exponentially. Although Mulroney was able to win huge majorities in the federal Parliament in 1984 and 1988, he was unable to make any significant changes in this ever-accelerating velocity and trajectory. Indeed, one of the consequences of Brian Mulroney’s Prime Ministership, may be that Canada has reached the situation today where winning a Conservative majority in the federal Parliament is nearly impossible, for even the most adept and skilful politician.

Brian MulroneyDuring his tenure in Ottawa between 1984 and 1993, it appeared that Brian Mulroney lacked any clear understanding of the over-all social environment or context in which he operated, or even of the real nature of power, which he was said to be so avidly seeking. It has long ago become accepted that "the permanent government" of high-ranking civil servants (such as the unelected Deputy Ministers), often wields greater power than almost any elected government. One could compare, for example, the power and influence of a backbench Member of Parliament to that of a middle-level bureaucrat in a politically-sensitive post.

By the 1980s, the rule of the Liberal Party in Canada had been virtually uninterrupted for decades, and in fact had carried on, with only a few Conservative interludes, since 1896, at the end of the nineteenth century. This meant that the federal civil service was filled with Liberal Party and liberal-oriented appointees and supporters, who did their best to undermine the Mulroney government, and its more right-leaning initiatives, from within.

Since Brian Mulroney had in fact won the second-largest majority in Canadian history, it could be argued that it was implicit in his mandate to initiate a general housecleaning and turn-over of staff, certainly in the higher echelons of the civil service. This would be what the media refers to as a "purge". But this never happened -- and, in fact, an opposite trend emerged. A former leader of the New Democratic Party, Stephen Lewis, was appointed as Canada's Ambassador to the UN. NDP MP Ian Deans was given the chairmanship of the Public Service Relations Board, after his early and unexpected retirement from Parliament. Gerry Caplan, one of the NDP's leading theoreticians, headed up a Task Force investigating the role of the media in Canadian society. Pierre Juneau, once a high-ranking Liberal Party member, and Trudeau associate and appointee, remained at the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and that vital media instrument remained as pro-Liberal (small and big ‘l’) as ever. Other sectors of the administrative apparatus, most notably the Department of External Affairs, remained equally untouched by the change in the elected government.

It could be argued that the Mulroney government's inability to bring the CBC, the civil service apparatus, and other government agencies and boards under closer control and scrutiny, resulted in an inability to carry out any policies significantly different from the Liberal ones, even if it had the desire to do so. Given the apparent strength of his 211-seat majority, Mulroney was in a position to launch serious initiatives in many directions, to try and challenge the policies of previous Liberal governments. That he did not do so stemmed also from the fact that he himself was viscerally, to a large extent, a "small-l liberal".

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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