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opinion

We all know how relations between Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper have tended toward the unpleasant. But it was still a surprise to see Mr. Mulroney slam Mr. Harper's record so frontally in a series of interviews last week.

We're heading into an election year. It hardly helps the Conservative cause. Nor does another blunt take-down of Mr. Harper in a new book by another conservative, former backbencher Brent Rathgeber. His message is summed up in the title: Irresponsible Government.

That recrimination stings, but the putdown from a former Tory prime minister cuts harder. In his interviews, Mr. Mulroney battered the Harper approach to foreign policy, climate change, the Supreme Court and his so-called incrementalist governing approach. "I'm happy to note that in retrospect, we had big achievements,' Mr. Mulroney said of his own time in office. "There wasn't much incrementalism in what we were doing."

He followed with another zinger. "You have to do things, as I learned, not for easy headlines in 10 days, but for a better Canada in 10 years."

In respect to major policy achievement, Mr. Mulroney can well make the case that his free-trade accord gives him the more substantive record. Some of his other criticisms were on the mark as well.

But in lamenting Mr. Harper's brand of conservatism, isn't he overlooking a rather germane point – wasn't it Mr. Mulroney himself who made Mr. Harper possible?

It was during Mr. Mulroney's stewardship, we recall, that the Progressive Conservative party frayed – in dire fashion. From the west came the Reform Party insurgency. From the east came the rise of the Bloc Québécois under Lucien Bouchard, who abandoned Mr. Mulroney and established the separatist party.

The record 211 seats the Tories won in 1984 was reduced to two in 1993, the year Mr. Mulroney left office. Of course, it was Kim Campbell who was at the helm for that election, but much of the groundwork for the electoral debacle had already been set in place. Had the enormously unpopular Mr. Mulroney contested that election, he likely would have won more than two seats – but a drubbing was almost certain.

The void created by the Tories' collapse was there to be filled. Since the Bloc's potential growth was limited to Quebec, Reform had the open field. The party, formed in 1987 with Mr. Harper as policy director, won 52 seats in 1993 and expanded thereafter.

Mr. Mulroney initially enjoyed the support of the party's right-side hard-liners, but he couldn't keep them on board. Western discontent with his leadership festered. He could make the case that with his business-friendly policies, such as free trade, the opening of foreign investment and the burial of the national energy program, he was being sensitive to Western concerns. But he was not fiscally conservative enough to appease the dissenters and was seen as catering excessively to Quebec, his home province. Under him, Mr. Harper and Preston Manning saw no hope for the change they wanted.

The controversy over Mr. Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber exacerbated tensions with Mr. Harper. But what drives Mr. Mulroney and old Tories like Joe Clark to speak out is the takeover of the party by what can be described as Republican Conservatives. In their hyper-controlling methodology and in many areas of policy, such as foreign affairs, criminal justice and the environment, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are closer to the American breed than the Canadian Tory tradition.

One illustration came last month when Mr. Harper, who heads a Fossil-award-winning government, toured the Arctic, a region being transformed by climate change. He couldn't bring himself to mention the issue a single time. Mr. Mulroney, who was a green prime minister, couldn't help but notice.

For him, the old Tory tradition in the party is well worth upholding. But while he chafes at the new Conservative way, he need remember that he bears a good part of the responsibility for it. Reform's rise occurred under his watch.