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Globe essay

The one we love to hate was our best leader in years

Measured against the only two other contenders, the man with the big jaw comes an unsettling first

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Lester B. Pearson was rightly celebrated this week, on the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize, as one of our best prime ministers, ever. Gentle, humble, admired around the world, he laid the foundations for our health and social policies. Federal-provincial relations were good. We have never felt better about ourselves.

Someone asked me, "Who was the best PM since Pearson?" I swallowed hard, but out came the answer: "Muldoon." Yet to use that Frank Magazine nickname is to be at one with the vast majority of Canadians in the 1990s, who despised Brian Mulroney more than any other prime minister. This week, the grounds for that emotion have come strikingly back to life.

Mr. Mulroney's greatest failure was that his manner and tactics brought politics into disrepute. Trust is at the centre of our society, and his often slippery, oleaginous quality and his intense partisanship hurt us all. In the end, his character destroyed him politically; further, personal consequences are unfolding today.

Still, in judging greatness, history tends to assess deeds rather than character. As a current example, Conrad Black did whatever he did with his companies, but his contribution to Canadian journalism and politics will remain great. A little farther afield, Jimmy Carter was a good man but many American scholars think he was a terrible president. The same people consider the Nixon presidency a good one, whatever one thinks of the man. Prime ministers should be assessed on this basis, too.

There are only three candidates for the best since Mr. Pearson: Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. The others, Joe Clark, John Turner, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin, are footnotes, fine people as they are.

And the question here is not who is or was the greatest human being, politician or party leader. Mr. Trudeau was the greatest man. Complex, fascinating, awesomely bright, loved and hated, he was larger than life.

Mr. Chrétien was the best politician, in a mean and cunning way, aided hugely by the terrible split on the right between the old PCs and the Reformers. Never achieving more than 40 per cent of the votes, he managed 100 per cent of the power for nearly a dozen years.

None of the three was a particularly good leader of his party. A great leader provides for succession. None of these men did. Two of them left their successors chalices so poisoned that they were politically dead within months.

Luckless legacies

Mr. Trudeau foisted a parting patronage list on his successor, John Turner, so long at more than 170 names that it induced nausea in the body politic. Astonishingly, Mr. Turner agreed in writing to deliver this pork, rather than rejecting it, thereby missing the greatest chance in our history to distinguish a new face from an old one.

Mr. Chrétien left Paul Martin the scandal of Adscam. Mr. Chrétien says today that he was prepared to stay on for a while and take the heat. Why then did he prorogue Parliament just three days before the Auditor-General's report would have been tabled? He dodged that bullet.

Mr. Mulroney was a much better party man. His caucus remained genuinely loyal even through popular support of only 17 per cent in his last days in power. Kim Campbell, his successor, fared no better.

But leave all that aside. Which of the three was the greatest Canadian prime minister? The public has no doubt. Their answer is Pierre Trudeau. The Angus Reid organization has asked twice this year about the recent "best prime minister" and Mr. Trudeau is miles ahead. Mr. Mulroney is "worst," except in Quebec.

But Mr. or Ms. Public is often answering a different question, namely, "Who do I like?"

Instead, we should look at the main tasks of a prime minister. These must include national unity, foreign affairs, the economy and a catch-all that I call "the condition of Canada": a grab bag of tangibles and intangibles such as immigration and the Canadian spirit.

On national unity, all three men were net minuses. We stayed together despite their best efforts. The glue was Canadian caution, common sense and inertia, not fine plans made in Ottawa.

In foreign policy, though Mr. Trudeau was interesting to the international press as a person, he didn't carry much weight in world chanceries and didn't get along well with our big neighbour. Much the same is true of Mr. Chrétien, though he made friends with many foreign leaders, especially Bill Clinton. By contrast, here Mr. Mulroney shone: close with Ronald Reagan, influential in South Africa's emergence from apartheid, effective on the environment.

Prime ministers do not have much impact on the economy, fortunately; most decisions are private. But government actions matter. Program spending went from 14 per cent of GDP to 18 per cent under Mr. Trudeau, dipped slightly to 17 under Mulroney, and went way down to 13 under Mr. Chrétien. The national debt as a percentage of GDP ended highest under Mr. Mulroney. Here, Mr. Chrétien is the star; the ratio fell back to early Trudeau numbers.

Incentives are much more important. Mr. Trudeau's Unemployment Insurance policies dramatically reduced work incentives, turning Atlantic Canada and parts of Quebec into client states of Ottawa. Wasteful "regional development" schemes proliferated under all three.

Mr. Chrétien did best on this, but he was blessed with an extraordinarily strong economy fostered by trade (a Mulroney legacy), the world commodity boom and a low dollar that in effect cut our world wages in order to sell more exports. The economy became fat and sloppy. Productivity, the source of all wealth in the end, lagged.

Laying heavy wagers

Two of these three pushed all of their chips into the centre of the table and bet their political capital. Jean Chrétien did not. He never willingly put himself at risk for a grand cause. Worse, he almost lost the country in the 1995 Quebec referendum. That alone disqualifies him as the best recent prime minister.

Brian Mulroney made three daring bets, the first two being economic. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States opened the way to a huge new prosperity, though Mr. Mulroney only won the election on this issue because the NDP split the vote opposed to the FTA. He then broadened and deepened the deal in NAFTA. This was the most important economic move by any government since Mr. Pearson's time.

His second daring bet was the GST, which Canadians still revile. Almost all economists agree it was the best tax change over this period. The GST gives good incentives (you pay on what you take out of the economy, not on what you contribute) and is highly visible. Visible taxes flag the cost of government. Mr. Mulroney could have hidden it, but did not. That one good decision did a lot to lose the next election for the Tories.

The most important bets were on "the condition of Canada." Mr. Trudeau was all about Quebec. His lifelong fight against French-Canadian nationalism was not only principled, but also visceral, personal, all-consuming. From the imposition of the War Measures Act and the sudden imprisonment of 400 political enemies, to multiculturalism — which made the French fact less special, as just one more culture — to opening up immigration to dilute the ratio of "old stock" francophones, policies were mobilized to crush the other side. (Of course other reasons were given, some of which had weight.) These measures vastly changed Canada, significantly overshooting public opinion. The debate on the merits is with us still.

The 1982 constitutional amendments were Mr. Trudeau's coup de grâce against franco-nationalism. We have now too much judge-made law, and rights were not much advanced beyond ordinary progress. Still, the Charter has become an icon.

But the imposition of these constitutional changes on Quebec has been the essential fuel for the sovereigntist flame ever since and came close to breaking the country.

Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Chrétien had to deal with this legacy of tension left by Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Mulroney's response, his third big wager, gave us the disasters of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord.

These initiatives were not needed. Quebec had been quiet, though sullen in some quarters. Mr. Mulroney awakened a sleeping giant. Maybe he was trying to prove himself a greater constitution-maker than his predecessor. While many people strongly opposed both initiatives as bad for Canada, Mr. Mulroney thought he was healing a wound. He too had a strong attachment to Quebec, a friendlier one than the Trudeauvian version.

Present processes will help assess Mr. Mulroney's character. I speak only of achievements and, on balance, he emerges as the best in the past four decades.

None of these men rose to the Pearsonian standard, though Mr. Trudeau, on character, and Mr. Mulroney, on policy, approached it. Canada deserved better, but we got what we elected

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