Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney says it was "unhelpful" and sent "the wrong signal" for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to publicly criticize Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Last spring, Harper's office suggested McLachlin tried inappropriately to intervene in the process to appoint Justice Marc Nadon​, whom the court later found to be ineligible for appointment. The original allegation, attached to an anonymous source and reported by the National Post, drew an unusual public comment by the court and sparked fury in the legal community.

Mulroney, who appointed McLachlin to the country's top court in 1989, called her "outstanding" and said she's done "quite a brilliant job" as both a justice and as chief justice. McLachlin was named chief justice in 2000 by then prime minister Jean Chrétien.

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Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivers a speech in Ottawa last year. (Fred Chartrand/ Canadian Press)

Mulroney said the court is highly regarded, with an integrity and independence that forms the backbone of Canada's justice system.

"We've got to have that to ensure our freedoms and our liberties.... And so they must be, in my judgment, treated with respect and consideration at all times. And that involves, for anyone, avoiding any slagging matches with members of the Supreme Court, starting with the chief justice," Mulroney said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio's The House.

"The whole thing is unhelpful because it, I think, sends the wrong signal. We have separation of powers in this country and the court has a special kind of responsibility in our lives," he said in an interview to air Saturday morning at 9 a.m.

Mulroney was doing interviews to mark the 30th anniversary of his unprecedented majority government victory.

Asked whether he thinks Canada should legalize marijuana use, decriminalize it, or keep the laws as they are, Mulroney said he thinks the laws will eventually change.

"Look, it's a generational thing. You ask me, I'm with the government position. If you ask my children or my grandchildren eventually, my guess is that they'd probably have a different view.… I think the young will rule the world."

Sizing up the leaders

Mulroney also warned that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are formidable opponents not to be counted out ahead of the 2015 federal election.

All three leaders of the main political parties — including Harper — are "very tough and effective people," making the next federal election a big one, Mulroney said.

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau poses with a supporter following a rally in Edmonton Aug. 19, 2014. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

But the Conservatives "should never count out the Liberals, ever," he said.

The former prime minister, whose party later merged with the Canadian Alliance to become the federal Conservatives, weighed the three current leaders' assets.

"[There's] Prime Minister Harper, who's tough, and able and a strong leader with a good economic record, you've got Justin Trudeau, who's attractive and young with a resilient political party behind them," Mulroney said.

"And Thomas Mulcair, who is probably the best Opposition leader since John Diefenbaker."

Baird 'effective' on foreign affairs

Mulroney says the election could hinge on the leaders' debate, referring to the moment where he thundered "You had an option, sir" at Liberal Leader John Turner, after Turner followed through on a raft of patronage appointments set in motion by his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau. Turner could only respond that he had no option.

"I think a lot is going to happen prior to the campaign of course, but in the television debates I think it could be a replay of what happened in 1984. There could be something significant happen. And I wouldn't count any of these people out. Because they're all extremely able. They can punch above their weight too. And all it takes is nine or 10 seconds in a television debate and the world has changed."

The former prime minister praised Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, calling him "particularly effective." Mulroney also told Solomon that Harper "has been solid and effective" at having Canada live up to its potential in the world.

When he was prime minister, Mulroney campaigned against South Africa's apartheid regime and had Canada help with efforts to get Nelson Mandela out of prison. He says the current conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, as well as the brutal conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is "a new, different situation."

"Prime Minister Harper and Mr. Baird are struggling to define and articulate a role for Canada in this unfolding drama, which is highly complicated and explosive. I think they're doing OK," Mulroney said.

Mixed reviews for Harper

Mulroney disagrees with how Harper is handling requests for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, however. Harper refuses to call an inquiry, arguing it's a matter for police to handle.

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Carol Martin at a Sisters in Spirit vigil held to honour the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Vancouver, B.C., in 2009. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Mulroney said he would order a royal commission, and said "it's not too late to do the right thing."

"I'm not being critical of them for it in any way, but you asked me what I would have done and I'm just giving you the answer," he said.

In other interviews this week, Mulroney has been more critical of Harper, arguing he:

  • Failed in having to withdraw Canada's bid for the UN Security Council.
  • Has poor relations with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Harper, speaking at the NATO summit in Wales, disputed Mulroney's reported assessment. Harper said Canada's ability "to contribute concretely in international affairs has never been higher."

"Whether it’s on the hard-powered side like the military, or the things we’ve been doing on development, particularly our leadership on child and maternal health. And I think those are the facts and I think they’re widely recognized in the world and by Canadians," Harper said.

'Consequential' change. 'Nothing more.'

Mulroney hinted at how he sees his legacy in Canada, telling CBC News that leadership is not a popularity contest, and listing off the controversial measures his government implemented: free trade with the U.S., followed by NAFTA, and the GST.

"If you're concerned about popularity and you're conserving your popularity, you can be certain that your impact upon history will be very, extremely modest. You have to govern, I think, as I've said, not for easy headlines in 10 days but for a better Canada in 10 years," he said.

"So what do you want to do — do you want to be remembered as some guy who was popular, or do you want to be remembered 50 years from now as somebody who made profound social and economic and political changes in the country, and who thereby shaped his nation in a beneficial way for future generations?"

Mulroney says former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin has said that the revenue generated by the GST and strong trade with the U.S. allowed the following government to balance its books. 

"So that's the kind of thing, consequential thing I was referring to, Evan, nothing more," Mulroney said.