Lessons from the past: Brian Mulroney and the failure of Canadian conservatism in the 1980s
By Mark Wegierski
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.
During 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 Canada 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".
Had he wanted to take a different course, Mulroney would have had to found a proper way of "handling" the media. During his two terms, instead of haggling over petty or ungermane issues, Mulroney could have charted a new course for Canada, establishing a new "National Policy", setting a new agenda, and emerged perhaps as one of Canada's greatest Prime Ministers, "the saviour of his country". Mulroney's combination of a lack of a systematic, principled conservative philosophy, along with his elements of visceral "small l-liberalism", meant that he failed to understand the nature of the mass media in modern society. The Canadian media of the 1980s did not exist to put on "Brian-and-Mila shows", but was generally adversarial and obstructionist to the core.
It could be said that the best course for any serious politician to follow when dealing with the media is to carry out what he or she thinks are the best policies regardless of media reaction; appeal to the people over the heads of the media; and find ways of short-circuiting the media information monopoly. Mulroney should have gone into office knowing that the media would be against him from the very beginning, recognized this fact, and sought to have found ways of working around it. His attempts to curry favour with the media were politically unsound and unrealistic. Mulroney should have realized that the media does not represent the general opinions of "the people", but rather of a handful of newspaper editors and broadcasting heads, who may be as mistaken and fallible as anyone else. Mulroney remained unaware (or pretended to remain unaware) of these fundamental political realities.
Faced with such a weak (towards them) opponent, the media lunged in with gusto to wreak maximum havoc upon Mulroney's government. It is a cardinal law of politics that vacuums of power will always be filled. (According to Marx's theories, this is the so-called "correlation of forces".) As the media, or any other social group, presses hard in a direction dictated by its own value-systems, this pressure can be held to reasonable limits only by a strong and significant counter-pressure, generated by the government, or other social groups. When a society remains unresistant to and largely unaware of these strong pressures, these pressures only intensify and grow more acute. Thus a state of "equilibrium" between social forces is quite rare -- either one side or the other will strive for victory. But such a victory is usually marked not by the cessation of the struggle, but by the desire to make the triumph as full and complete as possible. Thus, Mulroney, by refusing to ascertain that many in the media were his real opponents, and trying to curry favour with them, opened up the way for the complete rout of his position, in 1993, if not 1988.
In fact, Brian Mulroney's policies were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Liberals, and most of his government's "crises" were over personal, rather than serious policy issues. It is one thing to drop to 23% popularity because of the bold, new, unpopular initiatives one has taken, but quite another to do so on the basis of petty graft and a "do-nothing" policy. There is often nothing better than stating one's position strongly, and sticking to one's guns, as Ronald Reagan's two-term triumph has shown. He proved to be one of the most successful democratic politicians of the Twentieth Century.
According to a poll taken in July 1987 about possible voting preferences in a federal election, the NDP had the support of 41% of decided voters; the Liberals, 35%; and the PCs, 23%. (31% of voters declared themselves undecided.) It was obviously because of the media (in particular, the CBC), that the puny formal Opposition of 40 Liberal and 30 NDP MPs, were able to present such a continuous and effective challenge to a numerically overwhelming majority government.
Given the enormous power of the media ("one thousand repetitions make one truth"), and Mulroney's lack of real political apprehension, and of a real ethos with which to arm and defend himself, it could be argued that Mulroney's government was headed towards doom.
Mulroney also did not realize (or probably, preferred to ignore) the extent to which the power of the government is today used to extract tax-money from the social mainstream, and direct it to the causes, groups, and programs of the social peripheries. Mulroney did not seem to realize that every dollar he gave to such individuals and groups was a dollar given to his ideological enemies, who were exerting maximum efforts to sweep him from power, and utterly defeat the PC party in general, and "small-c conservatism" in particular.
For all his supposed "Machiavellianism", it could be argued that Mulroney misunderstood what "power" really is. Power is not an inert thing, an end it itself, but rather a means to other ends. Power is the ability to effect the social and physical environment -- to strengthen, or introduce changes to, people's behaviour-patterns and attitudes -- using a wide range of coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities. Presumably, those effects one wishes to induce and introduce are those in accord with one's own value-systems and beliefs.
Mulroney's political problems emerged in the fact that he had no clear and coherent value-system, apart from the belief in pure self-aggrandizement and "power-in-itself", as well as a left-liberal sentiment and instinct more appropriate to the Liberal and NDP. (As on the capital punishment issue where, according to polls, over 80% of Canadians were at that time in favour of the death penalty. It is an open secret that Mulroney arm-twisted his Quebec MPs and generally did his best to undermine the parliamentary vote taken at that time, in regard to restoring capital punishment.)
To be continued next week.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.