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Bombastic Mulroney bares fangs at Harper

At intervals indignant and randomly funny, former prime minister delivers trademark performance

The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — This was vintage Brian Mulroney.

He was at intervals indignant, occasionally bombastic and randomly funny during testimony at the Oliphant inquiry.

But the script was familiar to anyone who has watched the Mulroney mini-series that's been on TV since 1995, when he first battled to clear his name of allegations of impropriety involving government lobbyists.

Tuesday's performance had all the Mulroney trademarks.

There were the tales of life in public office, starring Brian Mulroney. Loyal friends came in for effusive praise. And acid-dipped barbs were aimed at those who have crossed him — look out Stephen Harper! “You can't form a government without seats in Quebec and if you do, you can't govern in this country. And you shouldn't govern,” he said.

That was an unmistakable broadside at the prime minister, who's sinking rapidly in the polls in that province.

Throughout the Mulroney saga, there has been a great attention to stage direction.

Mr. Mulroney has spent thousands on public relations and legal fees to fight for his reputation. He and his eight-member team had held full-day meetings since Friday in both Montreal and Ottawa to prepare for this week's testimony.

In a stroke of communications genius, they convinced the commission of inquiry to allow Mr. Mulroney's lawyer to go first.

No opening statements from witnesses are allowed, but what unfolded was exactly that — a chance for Mr. Mulroney to throw some headline-grabbing declarations at a room thick with reporters who were in varying states of blogging, twittering and televising.

“My business relationship with Mr. Schreiber was legal, and involved no wrongdoing of any kind at any time on my part,” he declared.

As in previous episodes, family is an integral part of the part of what the public sees.

Mr. Mulroney strode through Ottawa's light-filled former city hall holding ever-elegant Mila's hand, children Carolyn and Mark trailing behind supportively in demure dark suits. At 70, the former prime minister is looking older now, the bags under his eyes more pronounced, his pallor slightly waxy.

The scene was almost identical two years ago when he arrived at a parliamentary committee examining his relationship with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

Back in 1997 it was his youngest son Nicholas at his side outside their Montreal home as Mr. Mulroney happily responded to the news the RCMP had settled a defamation suit over their investigation into the government purchase of Airbus planes.

“I wanted any stain whatsoever removed from my father's name, and that's been achieved,” Mr. Mulroney said triumphantly at the time.

That stain just didn't seem to want to go away, however, and Mr. Mulroney was again invoking his “father's good name” before the Oliphant commission.

The gathering was subjected to the familiar folklore of Mr. Mulroney's life stretching back to his boyhood and modest upbringing in Baie Comeau, Que.

“The kids were stacked like lumber in the mill house, and I worked every summer and every year as a labourer, sometimes as a driver of trucks,” he recounted.

Peppered throughout his testimony were references to his years as prime minister. Mr. Mulroney happily dropped names of international politicians he dealt with personally and moments of world history that he says he had a hand in — such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“In [German] Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl's famous speech to the Bundestag, talking about this historic development, he said Germany would always have three leaders to thank from the outside ... and the three leaders were [U.S.] President Bush, [Russian] President Gorbachev and me.”

This was also the first time Mr. Mulroney has spoken publicly since the storm erupted over his membership in the Conservative Party.

A story emerged from Mr. Harper's office last month that Mr. Mulroney was no longer a member of the party, by his own design. Mr. Mulroney's reputation for harnessing intense loyalty from friends and colleagues was reinforced after MPs and ministers angrily came to the former PM's defence.

As grateful as Mr. Mulroney can be to his friends and allies, he can be equally cutting with those he considers enemies.

Mr. Harper had already fallen into his bad books by allowing the inquiry to proceed, but the membership imbroglio only made things worse. Mr. Mulroney sent several missiles in his successor's direction on everything from managing MPs to funding the United Nations to Mr. Harper's cutting the GST.

“There wouldn't be an economist in the Finance Department or the Bank of Canada that would say that was a smart thing to do. It cuts $12-billion out of your revenue ... it hurts your exports,” he said.

Mr. Mulroney's first day of testimony did little to shine light on some of the key elements at play — most notably the series of events that led his to his former of chief of staff Fred Doucet receiving a $90,000 cheque from a German arms company shortly after leaving office.

But this was about Mr. Mulroney setting the agenda on the crucial first day — the day people pay the most attention.

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