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Mulroney’s legacy: austerity, privatization and graft

John Bell

March 5, 2024

Reaction to Lyin’ Brian dyin’ has been mixed and confusing. A Globe and Mail editorial dubbed him “Canada’s last great prime minister.” A New York Times obit stated he “reshaped and divided” the nation. The ever weasely CBC called him “consequential”.

In the USA, he was celebrated – his pro-business, pro-Yankee politics was appreciated following the nationalism of some of the policies of Trudeau the elder.  Down there, government buildings are flying flags at half mast, which I’m sure will confuse hell out of most Americans who never heard of the old grifter.

Politicians of every stripe joined the queue to heap sugar-coated praise on Brian Mulroney. None was more nausea-inducing than Jagmeet Singh’s summation, calling Mulroney a ‘”true statesman” and “great Progressive Conservative”. He singled him out for his dedication to environmental protection, and for his ever smiling disposition.

It is true that it is hard to find a picture of him not smiling. Don’t be deceived. Mulroney was a vicious class warrior who would smile while sticking the knife in the backs of working people. He made his reputation as a lawyer specializing in opposing unions. 

As president and CEO of Iron Ore Company he excelled as an “asset stripper”, dismantling the corporation, selling off the most profitable bits to foreign interests, making the remains appear to be a failing business. He then shut them down. In the process whole towns along a swathe of Quebec’s northeast, like Schefferville, were destroyed overnight as he shut down the mines. Thousands of good jobs in mining, refining and transportation were gone.

Shareholders loved him. He was a rising star in the Tory party, and stepped on to a bigger stage where he repeated the pattern of creating a crisis, selling off the plums to the highest bidder without regard for the welfare of ordinary people or long-term national interests.

He rode to power thanks to wide-spread disgust with the lies and betrayals of the Liberals. His government was elected with the second largest majority in parliamentary history and 50% of the popular vote. Nine years later he was ridden out of Ottawa on a rail, polling as the most unpopular Canadian prime minister ever. On his watch the old “civil” Tory party self-destructed, leaving a rump of Alberta based, socially conservative MPs to form Preston Manning’s Reform Party. Under its own PC banner the Tory party won only 2 seats in the 1993 election.

In the dying days of his tenure he travelled to New York, lobbying hard with his conservative friends to secure him the position of UN Secretary General. Despite (or because of) support from his old pal George Bush, he was laughed out of town. Surely the mark of a “true statesman”. 

Mulroney revelled in the company of his pals: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Together they were the unholy trinity of neoliberal economics and austerity. But Mulroney was definitely the junior partner of the firm, the Larry to Thatcher’s Moe and Reagan’s Curly. Photos of the trio abound, with Mulroney inevitably grinning his delight at being in such lofty company

As PM his first order of business was selling off Crown Corporations. Previous administrations had “nationalized” over 60 strategic industries, part of a wave of economic nationalism then in vogue. True to form he picked 23 of the most profitable, notably Air Canada and Petro Canada, privatized and sold them off. 

His “legacy” achievement was to use his majority to ram through the massively unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement, one of the first big neo-liberal trade deals. Despite huge opposition from unions and workers, the deal, which was mostly kept secret, decisively shifted power from national government to multinational corporations. 

This great environmental champion signed away most of our ability to sue multinational corporations (and Canadian capitalists as well) for crimes against the environment. He kicked open the door for good, unionized manufacturing jobs to flood out of the country. He destroyed the domestic retail industry, unable to compete with international chain giants. He created an economy based primarily on resource extraction while trading away refining and manufacturing. He relegated millions to low-pay or minimum wage service jobs.

He decided he would be the last Father of Confederation by getting Quebec sign on to the Charter, only to provoke a needless constitutional crisis that almost resulted in separation.

When Mohawk warriors at Kanesatake protested and blocked the building of a golf course on their sacred land his response was to send in the army, coming within a hair of provoking a bloody slaughter. /

As veteran abortion rights activist Judy Rebick reminds us, when the Supreme Court struck down the law restricting abortion, Mulroney moved to introduce a new one. Only the threat of a huge, victorious mass movement forced his government to retreat.

And don’t even get me started on how this opportunistic grifter used his office to line his own pockets, got caught, and got off the hook with a half-assed apology. 

Certainly Mulroney’s attacks on the living standards and rights of workers was a continuation of those by the previous Liberal government with its wage and price controls betrayal. And he set the stage for more Liberal dismantling of the “social safety net” under Chretien and Martin. The drive impose corporate rule and austerity is a bi-partisan project. But Mulroney played his part with ruthless glee.

There is no doubt that Mulroney was “consequential”. Working Canadians, then and now, are paying the consequences of Brian Mulroney’s policies.


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