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Remembering Brian Mulroney

His enduring legacy and lessons on political leadership

By: /
8 April, 2024
The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney delivering a eulogy during the state funeral service for President George H.W. Bush in Washington, D.C. in December 2018. Photo: DoD/Kathy Reesey.
Sergio Marchi
By: Sergio Marchi
Member, CIC Advisory Council

Much has been said and written about Brian Mulroney since his passing, most of it deservedly positive. And I too would like to add some thoughts on the lessons we should all draw about political leadership during his time in power. As an Opposition Liberal MP during his two mandates, four lessons stand out.

First, the quiet and credible management of the nation’s affairs is an important obligation for any government. That’s what voters want and deserve. The less drama, the better. But true leadership is much more than that. It’s also about the need to ‘look around the corner’. To address the future by acting in the present so as to protect our tomorrows. To use one’s political currency, to take risks, to threaten one’s popularity with tough, but necessary decisions. On this, without any doubt, Brian delivered brilliantly. Indeed, he embodied the philosophy of ‘go big or go home’.

Second, history belongs to the decisive and in the long march, people will forget the frivolous political grandstanding. Instead, they will remember the significant acts of nation building, even the failures, as in Mulroney’s constitutional gambits. But the latter aside, his many successes have been well documented and have also stood the test of time – pursuing free trade with the United States, protecting the environment, helping dismantle apartheid in South Africa, ensuring global security following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the GST, and being the first nation to recognize a free and independent Ukraine. This constitutes an impressive and enduring legacy, and Canada’s foundations are stronger for it.

Third, there were all too many days when the House of Commons became  full of rage and fury. We in the Opposition tried our best during Question Period to get under the PM’s skin, for him to explode and thus create media interest in the concerns we raised. Sometimes our poisoned darts would hit their mark and draw political blood. But just as often, Brian would capably swat  them away.  

The takeaway is that if governments need to be principled in their conduct – and they must – then Opposition parties must be held to the same standards. It’s just not good enough to oppose for the sake of opposing, or simply to be different. Opposition should be anchored on a better idea, a preferable path. And in turn, that virtuous clarity would better allow voters to choose what and whom they want for their country.

Finally, and as a Open Letter in the Globe and Mail recently noted, politics today have become nastier, more divisive and increasingly polarized. While the pillars of our democracy are relatively strong – the rule of law, our charter of rights and freedoms, free and reliable elections, an independent media all come to mind – our political culture is fracturing. Increasingly, bitter internal divisions threaten our ability to confront external hazards and foes in solidarity. We must, as a result, return civility to our political discourse, both in front of and away from, the glare of the cameras.

In this regard, so many people have shared moving stories about how Brian reached out to them when they were hurting. He displayed a vast capacity for empathy, a heightened emotional intelligence, that touched many people from all sides of the political aisle, and all walks of life. His calls were legendary. I know, because I was on the receiving end of several. Bob Rae, our UN Ambassador in New York said that, “For Brian Mulroney, the telephone was like a musical instrument”. How true!

Today’s political class should take a page from Brian’s personal playbook. To treat people with more kindness and respect. To lift them up with hope and purpose. In fact, now that I better appreciate the enormous human reach that Brian had, this may be his most important lesson for us. Because it transcends politics. It is a credo for how to live one’s life. 

To be sure, Brian was not without faults. He made his share of mistakes. He was seduced by moments of grandiose self-promotion. And he left politics with dismal approval ratings. But, throughout his public life, he kept his eye on the ball and after falling, he would pick himself up. And today, thankfully, more Canadians are unified by his accomplishments, secure in the knowledge that his policies have successfully and collectively moved our country forward.

He learned well the lesson of Nelson Mandela, whom he helped free. The former South African President famously said and epitomized that, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.”

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