During a visit to The Globe and Mail’s editorial board Wednesday, former prime minister Brian Mulroney cited a comment Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made to him, about then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that accomplishments, not popularity, were what mattered: “It’s the durability of your achievements that count.” Despite back-to-back majority governments, Mr. Mulroney may not have realized lasting popularity. But 25 years ago, Canada and the United States made history with a Free Trade Agreement that has proven to be a durable achievement. Its success is a lesson for those who even now fear freer trade.
While emphasizing his government’s “foundational initiatives” to provide the solid economic foundation the country enjoys today, Mr. Mulroney went out of his way to praise his Liberal and Conservative successors, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, saying they had acted to serve Canada’s national interest and to strengthen national sovereignty, not only by sustaining his government’s trade agreements and tax reforms, but building on them.
Even so, Mr. Mulroney deserves a great deal of personal credit. Free trade was not an agenda he originated. It emerged from a Royal Commission appointed by the Liberals and headed by a Liberal, Donald Macdonald. But when his government decided to make freer trade with the U.S. a priority, Mr. Mulroney threw himself into it, at great political risk. His willingness then to roll the dice made all the difference.
Mr. Mulroney was a great campaigner and a tough negotiator, surrounded by a team of tough negotiators. The success achieved on Oct. 3, 1987 has shaped Canada’s economic development and its place in the global economy for the better. As he points out, trade volumes have tripled, and while there were casualties of the FTA, it did not result in the end of industries many had feared, such as the vintners in Niagara and the Okanagan, who emerged stronger. In a speech in Toronto Wednesday night, Mr. Mulroney said the FTA had erased old doubts and fears about Canada in the world, in favour of confidence and ambition. He’s right.
Looking ahead, Mr. Mulroney hopes for free trade agreements, with Europe imminently, and ultimately with East Asia. As for the TransPacific Partnership negotiations, which Canada has just lately joined, an agreement will require the ending of agricultural protectionism, but Mr. Mulroney observes that this can be managed with generous phase-out provisions. Having largely passed beyond the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, he understands what can be achieved with time and persistence. In light of the challenges facing Canada today, it’s important to recall Mr. Mulroney’s example.