Thirty years ago this month, Brian Mulroney won the biggest majority of any Canadian prime minister in history.
On Tuesday morning the Baie-Comeau-born and longtime Montrealer spoke with CBC Daybreak host Mike Finnerty on a wide range of topics including Montreal's fall from glory, Stephen Harper's record in government and Quebec City's chances of regaining the Nordiques hockey team.
Here is an abridged transcript of the interview, beginning with a question about Mulroney's first election to power:
Mike Finnerty: How clearly do you remember that victory? To what extent do you think it was about your freshness at the time coming onto the political scene, and I ask that partly because we’re entering a campaign where there’s a similarly fresh-faced contender.
Brian Mulroney: Well I think it was a combination of that. People were tired of Mr. (Pierre) Trudeau at the time, tired of the Liberal government that had been there for a long time as you know and we were new and fresh-faced, but I think really what accounted for the size of the majority was the results of the television debates that I had with Mr. (John) Turner.
I think that, I hoped that we were going to win. We were behind 14 points when Mr. Turner called the election as prime minister, but I think we caught up during the debates and won by almost 20 points. […]
While the issue in question happened to be about patronage at the time, I believe that Canadians tended to view this as a question of leadership. In other words, they might have been saying to themselves, "Look, we don’t know much about this young Opposition leader Mulroney, but if he could dispose and dispatch the prime minister during television debates, maybe he could handle the country for us."
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out to be a question of leadership.
MF: If Canadians were to elect Stephen Harper again next year, he would really enter the pantheon of the longest-serving prime ministers of all time. Are the stars aligned for that?
'You can’t write off Justin Trudeau, you can’t write off Mr. Mulcair. Anything can happen.' - Brian Mulroney
BM: Look, at fundraisers for members of Parliament and cabinet ministers across the country, I’ve said dozens of times that I think on the economic record alone, established by Prime Minister Harper and Jim Flaherty and now Mr. Oliver, the government should be re-elected with a majority just on the basis of the quite impressive way that they’ve handled the economy now for eight years.
One of the parts of that, and dear to my heart, is their trade policy which is the most expansive and innovative in 30 years. This Canada-European Union deal and the Canada-South Korea deal are going to add billions to our GDP. Tens of thousands of new jobs, and so, I’ve said many times publicly that Mr. Harper is a very consequential prime minister.
It’s interesting, when I make those complimentary references no attention is paid by the media, but anytime there’s a disagreement we get headlines, but that’s just the way life is.
MF: It’s true that last week you did give an interview in which you said Canada’s standing in the world had been hurt under Stephen Harper. How badly do you think we’ve fallen?
BM: I didn’t say it was hurt. I said that when Canada for the first time in history loses a bid to become a member of the security council and is defeated by Portugal, which has been on the verge of bankruptcy, I said we have to look into the mirror and say, "Houston, I think we have a problem." Because, how do you explain this?
MF: So how do we explain this?
BM: Well, I think the foreign policy… presentation has to be enveloped in a broader, more generous sense of narrative about the Canadian traditions, the reflection of Canadian values, our work at the United Nations, a solid friendship with the United States and so on.
MF: That’s interesting, because one of the things you’re so well known for is your bond you created with Ronald Reagan. I remember being in Quebec City and watching you on stage with Ronald Reagan, singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
BM: That’s a pretty good song, actually. I thought so, anyway.
MF: As a Finnerty, I would agree with you. But this prime minister does not have anything like that relationship with Barack Obama.
BM: Well, I think that’s probably true but remember, it takes two to tango. If you look at Obama’s relationships with others around the world, he’s not the most outgoing of guys in these kinds of relationships. I was very privileged. I had as presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, the people I worked with, and they were all terrific one-on-one and it was great interpersonal skills and so on.
I know for example, I’ve spent some time there, I know that for years Prime Minister Harper has tried pretty hard to form that kind of relationship and to get the kinds of reactions that we were privileged to get in our dealings with former presidents. But I has to say there has be reciprocity on that.
MF: The Conservatives are now making a play for Quebec once again, although the polls still don’t look so great. Do you think the Conservatives have the opportunity to win more seats in Quebec at the next election?
'I don’t think there’s any doubt that Montreal was damaged beginning in 1970 with the FLQ problems.' - Brian Mulroney
BM: I can’t get into specifics because I just don’t follow it that closely anymore Mike, but you should never count anybody out. Elections are, you know, it’s always interesting after there’s been a surprise, huge surprise, the unexpected happens in an election and people say the next day, “My God, I didn’t see this coming.” Of course not. That’s the beauty of a democratic election.
[…] You can’t write off Justin Trudeau, you can’t write off Mr. Mulcair, you can’t write off… anything can happen… I think it’s going to be a tight and a tough election because these are all, all of them, are impressive leaders.
MF: When you look at our city today compared to when you were in power 30 years ago, how do you see its development compared to the other big cities?
BM: I don’t think there’s any doubt that Montreal was damaged beginning in 1970 with the FLQ problems (the October Crisis) and subsequent political developments caused an exodus of many of our head offices and so on. All you have to do is take a flight to Toronto and see what’s happened there. Calgary and Vancouver are other examples.
I think Montreal is a great city in which to live. It’s a wonderful quality of life and it’s great for families and so on, but is it the economic powerhouse that it was when I arrived here from l’Université Laval in Quebec City in 1964? Fifty years ago, I can’t believe it. No. Montreal was the number one in Canada in everything. The excitement was palpable as we were getting ready for Expo 67 and then Charles Bronfman brought the Montreal Expos here, the subways were being built and all the banks, their head offices were here. It was an exciting, magnificent city at the time.
MF: Can it be that again?
BM: Who knows. We’ve got a new government in Quebec City that seems to be very much heading the right way, we have a new mayor in Montreal who’s doing an exceptionally good job. We’ve got a government in Ottawa that wants to cooperate in the most important area, which is job creation and economic development, and we’ve had a pretty good run at coming back from that big recession, so I wouldn’t exclude anything.
MF: I want to ask about the Nordiques because you’re directly involved in negotiations about trying to get the Nordiques back to Quebec City. What are the chances?
BM: I don’t know. I began this on behalf of TVA, for example, and the Nordiques in discussion with Commissioner (Gary) Bettman and what we began to look at was the telecasting rights for the Montreal Canadiens and the NHL, and we didn’t have much of a chance then, but it turned out that we got those rights. We were celebrating with Commissioner Bettman last week.
This is a big deal for us because it gives us an important foot into the action of the league and a chance to meet with others and to show the commissioner and his colleagues in the league what we’re capable of.