13 September 2005

Setting Mulroney straight

Brian Mulroney has reared his head again, via Peter Newman's latest book, to blast all his old enemies in the profane way only Brian Mulroney can.

You can find a lengthy piece on Newman's new book here and by picking up Macleans this week.

The one part I wish to deal with is Mulroney's absurd characterisation of Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake debacle.

This is from the Globe's piece on the book:

As for Mr. Wells, [Mulroney] held the [roll of the] dice story [in the Globe and Mail] as proof that he and others had been manipulated, and so began the long, agonizing march toward June 22, 1990, when both Newfoundland and Manitoba backed off on their votes, thereby killing the accord. Mr. Newman writes that Mr. Mulroney flew into a blind rage over Mr. Wells's decision. "You know all politicians take liberties," Mr. Mulroney later told Mr. Newman, "That's the nature of the beast, getting kicked around and trying to get things done in an imperfect system. But nothing has ever compared to the lack of principle of this son of a bitch. Lookit, on the night before the vote I was standing in the rain on the doorstep of his house and asked him what the odds were. He told me that after my speech, they were good -- at least 50-50. This was after he had already made up his mind to cancel the vote."

For the record, I served as special assistant to then-Premier Wells from 1989 until 1996. I lived through the hell of Meech Lake at somewhat of a distance, although in the incident of which Mr. Mulroney speaks, namely the vote on the Accord in the Newfoundland legislature, I experienced it directly.

By "roll of the dice", Mr. Mulroney is referring to an interview he gave to Susan Delacourt, who at the time wrote for the Globe, as well as Jeffrey Simpson and Graham Fraser of the Globe. The interview was conducted in June 11, and appeared on the front page of Toronto's national newspaper the following morning.

"In it, Mulroney made it clear that he had deliberately timed the first ministers' meeting to ensure a crisis atmosphere, to maximize pressure on the hold-out provinces, and to include the holding of a referendum in Newfoundland." [Deborah Coyne, Roll of the dice, (Toronto: James Lorimer and Co., 1992)]

Mulroney admitted that what had previously been characterised as being the result of a need for finding common ground among Accord opponents was in fact the result of a strategy meeting held at the Prime Minister's residence a full month before the meeting. The Prime Minister was attempting to manipulate the situation. Mulroney described the process for fixing the date of the meeting, or as he put it, "the day we're going to roll the dice."

Mulroney's quote was typical of his arrogant boastfulness and it ultimately was federal arrogance, not the actions of any provincial politician, which robbed Mulroney of his glory. The word Mulroney seeks is not profane, it is hubris, or to be more accurate, the painful end visited upon the exceedingly arrogant as a punishment by the gods of politics.

The House of Assembly debated the Meech Lake Accord motion beginning on June 20. Premier David Peterson of Ontario and Premier Frank McKenna of New Brunswick addressed the legislature on June 20, with Mulroney and Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine speaking on the 21st. As a side note, my staff duties for these occasions including co-ordinating the visits with the Mulroney and Peterson staffs.

Premier and Mrs. Wells entertained Mulroney at dinner at the Wells' residence on the evening of the 21st. Coyne notes that while Wells did not divulge the substance of the discussion, he did say that Mulroney believed the Accord would be rejected in the legislature.

Coyne also notes that caucus met after the House session closed after 11:00 Pm on the 21st to consider the implications of the vote in Newfoundland and in Manitoba. As I recall, public comments by the Liberal caucus members noted concern about the impact of a rejection by the Newfoundland legislature and, to some tallies such as mine, there appeared to be some waffling by cabinet ministers and backbenchers that may have seen the Accord pass.

It is clear, however that neither Premier Wells nor the caucus had reached a decision on adjourning the Accord vote at that point. Rather, as Coyne recounts, there was concern about the appearance of a rejection and a suggestion that the vote be delayed.

The tipping point came with the decision on Friday June 22 by the Mulroney government to extend the vote deadline for Manitoba if the Newfoundland legislature would approve the Meech Lake Accord. I recall standing in the caucus room as Lowell Murray, Mulroney's point man on the Accord, spoke live on CBC Newsworld outlining the proposal. Those caucus members who had previously signaled they might vote for the Accord immediately expressed their outrage. Even those allied with Brian Tobin, and hence likely to vote for the Accord at jean Chretien's whispered behest, changed their positions.

Views hardened almost immediately and almost unanimously in response to the perceived manipulation. I knew from traveling back and forth between the Premier's office and the legislature that morning that the Premier had been attempting to reach Murray repeatedly throughout the morning, and indeed was on the telephone on hold with Murray's office when the senator stepped in front of the television cameras.

My subsequent conversations with several of the office staff, but not with the Premier, confirmed that Coyne's account of this period is accurate.

Mulroney's comments in the Newman book are part of the ongoing campaign to foist blame for the Accord failure onto Wells. Mulroney never understood Wells from the beginning. The Mulroney government made no attempt to deal with him before June 1990, and I suspect the ever-arrogant John Crosbie likely had a large part in the misjudgment of Wells by the federal government.

The record speaks for itself on any point which Mr. Mulroney wishes to address. Unfortunately, the record does not support his contentions. One cannot be sure if his comments are merely delusions or part of concerted campaign of lies and deceit. There is no question that they are at odds with the facts.

As for the comment on Wells being an unprincipled son of a bitch, I can only say that, leaving aside the despicable comment on Mr. Wells' mother, Mulroney's remark demonstrates that he understood nothing - to call Wells unprincipled is tantamount to calling the Archbishop of Canterbury an atheist.

I have rarely met a more principled, conscentious and decent man in my life.

Would that the same could be said by anyone of the former prime minister, or for that matter, his former gaulieter in this province.