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How Brian Mulroney benefitted Canada: Why he went from 'great success politically' to a 'slap in the face' for Canadian voters

A Canadian expert believes Mulroney spearheaded multiple policies that present Canada still relies on, but one incident left 'a really bad mark' he couldn't recover from

A Canadian politics and government expert believes former prime minister Brian Mulroney left an impressive list of achievements by the end of his tenure at the top job, but an isolated incident involving an envelope of cash during a 1993 hotel meeting botched his record.

The expert’s analysis of Brian Mulroney’s time in the office and the controversy after comes as tributes poured in following the sad announcement of the 18th Canadian prime minister’s death made by his daughter Caroline Mulroney on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Mulroney’s popularity during his tenure as prime minister from 1984 to 1993 went from “top to bottom” despite him introducing certain revolutionary policies which may have been contentious at the time but benefitted Canada in the long run, said Nelson Wiseman, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of Toronto, in an interview with Yahoo News Canada.

He was the first Conservative leader since the 1880’s who led his party to two consecutive majority governments. That hadn’t happened in a hundred years since John A. Macdonald. So that’s very significant. That shows great success politically.Nelson Wiseman, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Toronto

“On the other hand, he also took his party down to defeat. In fact, after winning their most smashing victory in 1984 – no party had ever got 211 seats – his party ended up disappearing, swallowed up by the Reform Party so he went from top to bottom,” Wiseman added.

Accolades: Free trade agreement, GST and resolving Canada’s acid rain problem

Between the record-breaking win in 1984 and his political party nearly “disappearing” starting almost 10 years later, lie the key decision making events that moved him up and down the public popularity graph among Canadians.

Mulroney negotiated free trade agreements with the United States and Mexico and introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) domestically, both of which were challenged at the time by various opposing interest groups but are now mainstays of the Canadian economy.

“He brought in the GST which was damaging electorally but it was the right thing to do because it got rid of a heavily distorting manufacturers sales tax,” the Free Press writer Rupa Subramanya notes in her online tribute to the late prime minister.

“People don’t like to pay taxes. So, they hated him for it but it was a good thing he did it. Because, look at how much money it generates. Can you imagine what the deficit of Canada would be now without the GST?” Wiseman shared with Yahoo News Canada.

On introducing the free trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico, Wiseman emphasized that while the majority of Canadians, including cultural communities – especially the unions and hospital workers –- who feared private American ownership taking over, were against it, the deal was “fabulous” for Canada.

Wiseman also stressed on the crucial role played by Mulroney in helping resolve Canada’s “acid rain” problem in the '80s which goes down as a major accomplishment on his record.

“If you're eating fresh vegetables and fruits in the winter, thank Mulroney,” Subramanya wrote in her post.

Mulroney’s downfall: Quebec failure, Airbus scandal and ‘deeply unpopular’

Mulroney’s downfall was “triggered” by the “disastrous” policy defeat of the Meech Lake Accord, a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada negotiated in 1987 by then-PM Mulroney and all 10 Canadian provincial premiers to bring his home province of Quebec on board, which ultimately failed.

“What he was trying to do there was to outdo Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau got the Charter of Rights and the constitution but Quebec hadn’t agreed to it,” Wiseman explained.

“Mulroney’s plan was I’m gonna bring Quebec in and win their agreement to all of this and give them something like recognizing a distinctive signing – got all the premiers to agree – but then we got some elections and had new premiers elected who insisted on changes. So Meech Lake never passed.”

One of Mulroney’s biggest ambitions to unify the country failed utterly with the efforts almost leading to its destruction as the saga almost left Quebec separated from the rest of Canada.

“That was a big slap in the face,” Wiseman concluded.

Canadian government and politics expert Nelson Wiseman weighs in on Brian Mulroney's legacy and his rating on the public popularity scale
Canadian government and politics expert Nelson Wiseman weighs in on Brian Mulroney's legacy and his rating on the public popularity scale

Airbus scandal was another 'bad mark' on Mulroney's legacy

Another nail in the coffin for Mulroney’s eroding popularity was the Airbus scandal that began in the late 1980s and concluded close to 2010 with the years in between presenting Mulroney with a tumultuous round of challenges.

Initially, it was alleged that Mulroney was bribed by a German-Canadian businessman to purchase the Airbus passenger aircraft for Air Canada (when it was a Crown corporation) during his prime ministership around 1988.

In his defence, Mulroney called the allegations part of a smear campaign and sued the federal government for millions of dollars with the RCMP leading the investigation and the case being settled out of court in 1997.

“It came in unmarked envelopes and he denied that he did anything with this guy, Karlheinz Schreiber, except have coffee,” Wiseman shared with Yahoo News Canada.

However, it was later determined that Mulroney received at least $225,000 in cash, which he admitted to a public inquiry but insisted that he was no longer the prime minister of Canada at the time accepting the “envelope of cash.”

“It wasn’t bribery. He wasn’t in government but he was lobbying for Air Canada to buy Airbus which they ended up doing. So that’s a really bad mark on him as a person,” Wiseman shared.

The Oliphant Commission, not mandated to determine whether civil or criminal laws had been broken, issued a final report in 2010, stating that Mulroney had acted inappropriately in not disclosing the funds.

By the time he quit from the top job and as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Mulroney was deeply unpopular, and along with his unpopularity came the aftermath which left his party in tatters.

Yahoo Canada live blog coverage: See a recap of events after Mulroney's death