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‘The West was already in’: Mulroney defends his legacy as PM

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is photographed meeting with the Globe's editorial board on Oct 3 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"The West wants in," was the cry in the 1980s. Nonsense, says Brian Mulroney.

"The West was already in, and had been since the day our government took office," the former prime minister maintained in a speech he delivered Tuesday evening.

As historians assess the legacy of the Mulroney era, the man it is named after is determined to have a hand in what they say. Twenty-five years after the signing of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, he has been speaking on the success of that accord in promoting trade between the two countries.

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And in Calgary on Tuesday, Mr. Mulroney addressed, albeit indirectly, the greatest blemish on his record: the rise of the Reform and Bloc Quebecois parties, which ultimately doomed his Progressive Conservatives.

When Mr. Mulroney became prime minister in 1984, Western MPs were a powerful force in government for the first time since John Diefenbaker's defeat in 1963.

How powerful? Don Mazankowski was deputy prime minister, Joe Clark was foreign minister, Harvie Andre, who passed away Monday, was Government House Leader, Jim Hawkes was caucus whip, Lee Richardson was deputy chief of staff. Albertans, every one.

But it was about more than just people, Mr. Mulroney asserted. His government scrapped the hated National Energy Program and the Foreign Investment Review Agency, transferred the head office of the National Energy Board from Ottawa to Calgary and privatized Petro-Canada, "unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector in the oil patch."

There was the creation of the Western Diversification Office and aid to western farmers. Most of all there was the free trade agreement itself, which unleashed a new sense of energy and confidence within Canadian business, not least in the West.

"I think any objective, informed observer would be hard pressed to find another federal government in the 145-year history of Canada that did as much (as) or more than ours to ensure that powerful action and results were delivered to Alberta and her citizens," Mr. Mulroney declared.

And yet that same objective, informed observer would be compelled to note that Westerners voted against the Progressive Conservatives and for the new Reform Party in 1993, led by Preston Manning, who coined the term: "The West wants in."

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The failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the awarding of the CF-18 maintenance contracts to a Montreal rather than a Winnipeg firm, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax– which was sound policy but lousy politics – the general focus on accommodating Quebec and a myriad other slights real and perceived fed the rise of Reform.

Today, Canada is led by Stephen Harper, a Conservative prime minister who is of and from the West, and Westerners appear largely to accept they are not just in, but largely in charge.

Mr. Mulroney declined to address these darker aspects of his legacy, both in his speech and in an interview.

"I've simply dwelt on the role my government played, without a sliver of malice or vindictiveness," he said in the interview.

The closest he came in the speech to considering the events that led to the rise of Reform, and of the Bloc Quebecois, was this:

"Time is the ally of leaders who placed the defence of principle ahead of the pursuit of popularity." (We suspect Mr. Mulroney is referring to himself). "And history has little time for the marginal roles played by the carpers and complainers, and less for their opinions." (We suspect Mr. Mulroney is referring to Mr. Manning.)

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Leaders must "be ready to endure the attacks that often accompany profound or controversial change," he concluded, "while they await the distant and compelling sounds of a verdict that only history and a more reflective nation can render in the fullness of time."

And time, Canada's 18th prime minister is convinced, must ultimately be on his side.

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