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The rehabilitation of Brian Mulroney: There's a reason he's looking so good these days

Brian Mulroney

Have you noticed how Brian Mulroney is looking pretty good lately?

Back in the day, after Mulroney left office in 1993 as the Conservative prime minister who brought us "free" trade, failed constitutional change and sundry other disasters, real and imagined, he could have been fairly described as the most unpopular man in Canada.

And that was before the sleazy sounding but never proven allegations made the rounds about whatever the heck was going on between the former prime minister and Karlheinz Schreiber, plus those envelopes of cash and those airliners.

Mulroney's replacement to lead the then-still-Progressive Conservative Party to another term in government, the hapless British Columbian Kim Campbell, was swept from the board by angry voters along with all but two of the party’s Members of Parliament.

Canadians were particularly incensed by a comment of Mulroney's that he had "rolled the dice" by deliberately timing a first ministers' conference on constitutional change in 1990 to provoke a sense of crisis.

A long (and some might say happy) period of Liberal rule followed in Ottawa. Alas, it also paved the way for the hostile takeover of the PC Party by the Reform Party of Canada in the Invasion of the Party Snatchers of 2003, spelling the end of traditional Conservatism in Canada.

Mulroney is now 73, and all of a sudden our assessment of the man is changing for the better, and changing quickly.

Well, people, this isn't just happening. There's a major campaign under way to improve Mulroney's image for posterity. It has to be costing big money and it may have an agenda that’s bigger than just history's view of Mulroney.

Indeed, while I can find no direct confirmation with my primitive Googling skills, the footprints in the snow strongly suggest Mulroney has either hired Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a high-powered Ottawa lobbying house with ties that go back to his government, or that Earnscliffe is working to rehabilitate Mulroney's reputation for some other reason.

Perhaps it is just motivated by friendship and loyalty. Two Mulroney insiders -- Bill Fox, his former press secretary, and Harry Near, his campaign manager in 1984 and 1988 -- played key roles in the establishment of Earnscliffe.

Whatever it is, though, Mulroney's reputation certainly has a new shine on it, and Earnscliffe is clearly involved.

First there was that long and balanced, but ultimately positive story about Mulroney in the Globe and Mail back on Oct. 1. The opinion piece was written by Robin Sears, the former national director of the New Democratic Party. Sears's current role? Why, he's a "principal" of the Earnscliffe Group, of course.

On Oct. 3, the Canadian Diabetes Association sent out a "media advisory" noting that it would be the beneficiary of a tribute dinner for former prime minister Mulroney. Mulroney would be the featured speaker at the dinner that night, which was timed to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, the news release noted.

"The net proceeds for the event will be donated to the association to help lead the fight against diabetes by helping people with diabetes live healthy lives while working to find a cure," said the release, and you have to agree that was a nice thing for Mulroney to do.

The contact on the bottom of the release for journalists who wanted more information? Well, in addition to someone from the Diabetes Association, it was none other than Sears of Earnscliffe.

On Oct. 4, Mulroney held a meeting with the editorial board of the Globe and Mail, which prompted some very kindly reviews. For example, under the headline "Brian Mulroney's lasting legacy," a fawning Globe and Mail editorial stated that for free trade, "Mr. Mulroney deserves a great deal of credit."

"His willingness to roll the dice made all the difference," the Globe’s smart-aleck editorialist added cleverly, presumably assuming the rest of us have long forgotten about Mulroney's original use of the phrase and Canadians' reaction to it.

The Globe's editorial writer didn't see fit to tell us what Earnscliffe's role, if any, was in setting up that meeting. Nor did the Globe reporter who wrote a friendly news story on the event. But here's a confident bet that Earnscliffe was involved.

Two days after the anniversary, better a little late than never, Postmedia News published a similarly supportive piece by L. Ian MacDonald, editor of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's house publication, which contains a story on the negotiations by Mulroney himself. MacDonald's conclusion, like that of Mulroney in his own piece, was that free trade has been a resounding success.

None of this may be news to Parliamentary insiders, of course. But it is to most of us who just pick up our papers or read them online out here in the hinterland and wonder, "Gee, maybe we did misjudge that Mulroney fellow."

Did we? My guess is that history will be a little kinder to Mulroney than most Canadians were at the time he left office. Indeed, it's been said in this space that he was probably right about the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, though it hardly seemed so at the time.

But will it be as kind as the Globe and Mail and Postmedia News writers with their paeans to the benefits of freeish trade deals? This is highly doubtful. Indeed, historians may mark Mulroney's NAFTA as the beginning of the end of Canada as a sovereign nation, a trend the current Harperist government in Ottawa seems determined to accelerate.

Beyond the former Conservative prime minister’s own understandable desire to repair his still-tarnished reputation, this is what likely lies behind the full-court press to rehabilitate Mulroney.

The Globe's editorial ended with a call for new rounds of free-trade negotiations with Europe, East Asia and beyond. It emphasized the need to end "agricultural protectionism" -- a veiled shot at Canada's supply management of dairy, poultry and eggs. It suggested no one should worry about that, though, because all will be well thanks to "generous phase-out provisions." And it advised us that "in light of the challenges facing Canada today, it's important to recall Mr. Mulroney’s example."

In other words, it is said here, free trade and globalization, and the bogus sense of crisis and attacks on working people that go with them, are at the base of the full-blown professionally organized campaign to rehabilitate Mulroney's reputation.

This post also appears on David CLimenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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