Brian Mulroney is challenging Stephen Harper on the eve of his fifth anniversary in office to forget about easy headlines, polls and popularity – and do something remarkable.
His message: Go big.
“We make enough mistakes in politics but it’s important that you try to get the big things right,” the 71-year-old former Conservative prime minister says in an interview from his Montreal law office. “History remembers the big-ticket items.”
He is not critical of Mr. Harper or his leadership. On the economy, he credits Mr. Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with being competent managers of the “public interest.”
With the economic situation in check, however, Mr. Mulroney sees an opportunity for politicians to tackle one of the country’s most difficult and politically sensitive subjects – health care.
He is not suggesting a remake of the country’s health-care system. But he despairs about its funding, concerned that over the next 15 or 20 years it will consume most provincial budgets – pushing out spending on education, research and development and highways and other infrastructure.
“We are facing a genuine, genuine problem of quite enormous dimensions,” Mr. Mulroney says. “We have a pretty good system here, but obviously the financing is completely out of whack.”
His advice to Prime Minister Harper, especially given the partisan fighting that is so much part of a minority Parliament, is to create a blue ribbon panel of non-partisan, distinguished Canadians.
“Someone has to provide some unbiased, thoughtful but effective leadership in the thinking on this,” he says. “Without some new thinking and some visionary approaches, health care is going to consume 70 to 75 per cent of provincial budgets.”
He has floated his idea in a speech and in a recent newspaper op-ed article, but jokes that his enthusiasm is not “widely shared in Ottawa.”
Amid all of this, Mr. Mulroney is dealing with his own health issue. In September he was diagnosed with hepatitis E, which he picked up while visiting Turkey last summer.
It has resulted in diabetes: Mr. Mulroney now has to inject himself three times a day with insulin.
“I thank God,” he says with his trademark baritone laugh, “for Banting and Best, those great Canadian health-care experts.”
But he has not let this set him back. He has just returned from a holiday in Florida with his family. He is off to Washington soon to speak on the 100th birthday of his late friend, Ronald Reagan; and there are board meetings and more speeches.
It has been nearly 30 years, meanwhile, since Mr. Mulroney’s Conservative Party formed the government. At that time his was the first Conservative government since John Diefenbaker’s in the late 1950s, with the exception of the short-lived Joe Clark government. It would take another 13 years after Mr. Mulroney stepped aside in 1993 for the Conservatives to return to office.
His government negotiated the free-trade agreement with the United States and Mexico, and watched trade explode south of the border; it brought in the GST after a considerable fight, and it was almost successful in amending the Constitution.
At that time, Mr. Mulroney and his policies were not universally popular.
“I think the important thing I have learned – it is important that as prime minister, for your policies, you think not in terms of easy headlines in 10 days but a better Canada in 10 years. That should be the test,” he says.
“On the larger issues – if you look at it not in terms of a search for popularity but what is good for Canada – then eventually that seems to work its magic in terms of durability.”
Mr. Mulroney is acutely aware that Mr. Harper is governing with a minority government, which was not an issue for him. He had two majority governments, making it a little easier to push his agenda.
But looking back in history, he notes that Lester Pearson, who also presided over a minority government for five years, faced two “ferocious” opponents – Mr. Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas.
“Yet, in spite of the minority situation for five years, Mr. Pearson, as I remember, did medicare, he did the flag,” he says. “Look, first of all you don’t get to be prime minister unless you have some considerable talents and, secondly, you don’t get to remain in office in a minority situation for five years unless you have some considerable political skills. And I think both Mr. Pearson and Mr. Harper have shown they have.”
Big things can be done, he says.
“Politicians can do transactional things or they can do transformational things, transform your country. ... There is an opportunity now for politicians to recognize the enormity and complexity of the challenge that confronts us in the health area.”