Full name: Martin Brian Mulroney
Born: March 20, 1939, Baie-Comeau, Quebec
Served: September 17, 1984 to June 25, 1993 (8 years)
Party: Progressive Conservative
Like Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) before him, Brian Mulroney was a deeply controversial, polarizing figure while in power, and left office with his approval ratings at record lows. Yet with so many of his once-controversial ideas now increasingly mainstream, maybe history is starting to soften on the Mulroney record.
Mulroney was born in Quebec to a working-class, Irish-Catholic family, but networked and schmoozed his way into high society, rising to be a respected labour lawyer and corporate executive. Though he never sought elected office, he was a strong supporter of the Progressive Conservatives and in 1983 wrestled the party leadership from Joe Clark (b. 1939). A natural, charismatic campaigner, a year later he easily beat John Turner (b. 1929) and became prime minister.
Though basically a moderate in temperament, Mulroney sought to lead a conservative government that would reverse the left-wing drift of the long Trudeau era. Inspired by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, the former CEO introduced a number of free-market reforms to the Canadian economy, including business-friendly deregulation, free trade with the United States, corporate tax cuts, and privatization of certain government services. As part of a larger agenda of tax reform, he also introduced a hated national sales tax, the Goods and Services Tax, or “GST,” that did much to ruin his reputation.
Always deeply concerned about Quebec’s role in Canada, Mulroney finished his second term pushing for ambitious reforms to the Canadian Constitution that would recognize the French province as a “distinct society” and give it greater powers under Canada’s federal system. Though popular with the political class, a 1992 referendum on constitutional reform proved to be incredibly divisive, and fostered great cleavages between English and French and East and West. Mulroney resigned in 1993, and has spent much of his retirement trying to defend his legacy.