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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Brian Mulroney's long campaign of vindication Add to ...

Well into his speech, Brian Mulroney reached for lines from the old ballad: "I am wounded, but I am not slain. I'll lay me down and bleed a while, then I'll rise and fight again."

As applause from a thousand friends engulfed the room, the former prime minister stood motionless for 15 seconds, forgoing his usual broad smile, his eyes staring directly and defiantly ahead, as if to say to the Muse of History: You must be fair with me, fairer than my tormentors, of which there have been so many.

Did Mr. Mulroney realize, with his acute knowledge of his party's history, that the last Progressive Conservative leader to utter those lines was John G. Diefenbaker as his leadership was being contested?

Mr. Diefenbaker, in recalling the old ballad, was fighting for his political career; Mr. Mulroney now fights for his reputation. His political career ended 16 years ago, following consecutive Conservative majorities in 1984 and 1988, something no Conservative leader had accomplished since Sir John A. Macdonald in the 19th century.

Last Thursday night marked the 25th anniversary of the swearing-in of Mr. Mulroney's first government, with 211 seats, 58 in Quebec, and a mandate more robust than any ever given a prime minister.

The 1984 election fundamentally changed Canadian politics. Before it, the Liberals had dominated Canadian politics for about nine decades. Ever since, the Conservatives and Liberals have been in office for about the same amount of time. The election rebalanced Canadian politics.

To celebrate the banner day in Mr. Mulroney's life, and that of the Conservative Party, four friends organized the Thursday event in Montreal that attracted 38 ministers from those governments, including Quebec Premier Jean Charest, dozens and dozens of MPs and staffers from those years, hundreds of party supporters, and friends of Brian and Mila Mulroney, the best political couple Canada has ever seen.

What began as an event that might attract 700 people swelled to an affair with 1,500 tickets sold. Conservatives came from far and near, told political war stories, reminisced happily about those years of triumph, noted the many ironies and subtexts of the evening, repeated white lies about how age had not changed each other. But mostly they showed a genuine affection for Mr. Mulroney, who had himself shown a genuine affection for the rank-and-file, and especially PC MPs, during his years as leader.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent best wishes in a pretaped message, an olive branch to narrow the breach between himself and Mr. Mulroney. The gesture was overtly not returned, for in 30 minutes of speechifying Mr. Mulroney never once mentioned the Prime Minister. Not mentioned either, for it was an evening of fond remembrance and deliberate forgetting, was Mr. Harper's defection from Mr. Mulroney's party while a young ministerial aide, to join the fledgling Reform Party, whose creation and subsequent success did so much to destroy the Progressive Conservative Party.

Mr. Harper, fortuitously busy in New York, sent his wife and a gaggle of ministers, his ban on trucking and trading with Mr. Mulroney apparently over. That ban had arisen, of course, from another of the evening's deliberate omissions: reference to the recent public inquiry into Mr. Mulroney's unpardonable acceptance of money in envelopes from German arms dealer and influence-peddler, Karlheinz Schreiber.

That inquiry into the inexplicable behaviour of the former prime minister dragged his reputation through muck of his own making - muck that alas for him will not easily be wiped away no matter how earnest his efforts and those of his friends.

All Mr. Mulroney can do, through his long autobiography and celebrations such as Thursday's, is to recall, as it is entirely understandable for a former prime minister to do, the accomplishments of his time in office, especially decisions, often unpopular or controversial, that have stood the test of time.

No politician today proposes to scrub his free-trade deal with the United States that was later extended to include Mexico. No one gainsays his decision to pressure South Africa's then-apartheid regime within the Commonwealth, to allow Quebec into La Francophonie, to push Canada into the Organization of American States.

Politicians today play with the goods and services tax, but none suggests scrapping it. No one wants to bring back the national energy program that his government eliminated. No one seeks to bring back into public ownership Crown corporations such as Petro-Canada that he privatized. No one now thinks - as many in his cabinet and editorial writers at this newspaper did at the time - that Ottawa acted rashly in supporting the development of the Hibernia offshore oil fields that have done so much for Newfoundland. Mr. Mulroney underscored all these decisions, and more, as befitted a night of celebration that was in turn part of a long campaign of vindication.

In his speech, as in his memoirs, he could not forget the Meech Lake accord that had begun in such hope but sorely divided the country and spawned the Bloc Québécois whose continuing presence still deforms Canadian politics. Obviously, the Meech Lake collapse haunts him and, whether Canadians acknowledged it or not, us still.

The conservative world Mr. Mulroney consolidated in those historic PC majority triumphs was shattered in the wake of Meech Lake's demise, and has never fully been reassembled. It subsequently passed through various iterations - Reform, Canadian Alliance and now Conservative. Although Mr. Harper would never admit it publicly, his abiding political objective has been to recreate the coalition Mr. Mulroney assembled, an objective he has not achieved largely owing to his repeated disappointments in Quebec.

If Mr. Harper were to fail again, and leave high office or be forced from it, another subtext of the Mulroney evening was offered by the presence of Mr. Charest who, at 50, with three wins under his belt in Quebec politics, was signalling by his personal presence that not only might he wish to mend torn fences with the Harper government, but that if and when the time came, Conservatives could do worse than to look at him to resume an aborted federal political career.

And would that not be supremely satisfying for Mr. Mulroney, who has been a mentor to Mr. Charest, to regain background influence in federal politics, to be considered no longer, as he was by Mr. Harper, a persona non grata - not even considered to be a member of the Conservative Party! - to be respected again by his party and its leader, and to "rise and fight again" for his reputation in the political history books of Canada.

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