The thing about the fight that Stephen Harper has managed to pick with Brian Mulroney, the paradox that elevates it beyond a few days’ bad headlines into the sort of event that makes party members wonder about the boss’s judgment, is that Harper was only doing what he has always done to win.
For as long as he has been in politics, Harper has returned, at important moments, to a few favourite techniques to manage the public agenda. Selective leaks to reporters. Titillating stories custom-designed to distract the press and public from weightier events. Wedge issues chosen with care to turn ally against ally.
It’s what he does. Except he used to do it to his opponents.
This time he did it to Mulroney—the patriarch of one of Harper Conservatism’s constituent groups and a still-formidable political street fighter who, even now, probably has more real, call-him-up-on-his-birthday friends in the party Harper leads than Harper does.
It was Harper’s staff, acting on his behalf for days on end, who leaked word to reporters recently that Mulroney had cut his links to the party. With the Oliphant commission into Mulroney’s ties with Karlheinz Schreiber looming, it was a transparent bid to put space between this Prime Minister and his predecessor. Mulroney and his loyalists took the hint and the insult and pushed back—hard. Pretty soon, two decades’ worth of bad blood was on public display. And Harper, who could use some good luck these days, had some of the other kind on his hands.
Brian Mulroney was making people hurt for crossing him when Stephen Harper was still in short pants. So one question Ottawa Conservatives were asking, when the bizarre two-week debate over Mulroney’s membership status finally calmed down, was: what on earth got into Harper?
Robin Sears is no Conservative. He’s a long-time New Democrat who served as Bob Rae’s chief of staff when Rae was Ontario’s premier. But Sears does act as Mulroney’s paid spokesman, a position that has kept him busy while the Oliphant commission prepared to investigate Mulroney’s dealings with Schreiber. Here’s what Sears makes of the Mulroney membership kerfuffle. First, “what should have been a very positive week for the government,” because Harper was attending a bunch of blue-chip summits overseas, “hasn’t been.”
“Secondly, Mr. Mulroney’s mandate, legacy and record of achievement has been revived in a mostly positive manner, at a time when one couldn’t have anticipated that.
“From the perspective of the world beyond, it provides a rather unhelpful glimpse into how fragile the bonds of partisan loyalty remain within the Conservative party.”
When Canadian conservatives set aside their differences to build broad coalitions, they prosper and govern. One measure of the difficulty of that task is that they have so rarely governed. In the past half-century, only Harper, Mulroney and John Diefenbaker have won more than one national election. For much of that time Mulroney and Harper have incarnated, sometimes in the breach, the importance of conservative loyalty. When they were on the same side, Conservatives were in power. When they weren’t, they weren’t.
Harper was a campus political geek at the University of Calgary when Mulroney won his historic first majority in 1984. For Harper, an Ontario-born former Liberal who had abandoned his old party out of disillusionment with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program, Mulroney’s election must have seemed like a new dawn. He went to Ottawa to work for Calgary West MP Jim Hawkes. But Mulroney took almost two years to roll back the NEP. By then Harper had moved to Calgary, disgusted with the glad-handing and compromises of life in Mulroney’s Ottawa.
By 1987 Harper was at the founding convention of a new western protest movement, the Reform party. He became Preston Manning’s policy director and ran twice against Hawkes, finally beating him in 1993. The near-simultaneous rise of Reform and the Bloc Québécois illustrated the surprisingly rapid disintegration of the Mulroney coalition.
Even at that early stage Harper’s relationship to the older man was complex. Certainly he harboured no illusions about Mulroney’s popularity. “The man has a pettiness and a credibility problem that is so large that it’s tough for voters to support him even when he does things that may benefit their region or benefit them personally,” Harper told a reporter in 1991. “He really is an anathema.”
And yet Harper was reluctant to attack Mulroney personally in the political arena. With political scientist Tom Flanagan, Harper persuaded Manning to run against the constitutional amendments in the Charlottetown accord in 1992. But they also resisted when Manning wanted to label the accord the “Mulroney deal.” That was cheap, Harper and Flanagan argued. Better to argue on substance.
The same ability to coolly gauge Mulroney’s strengths and weaknesses came in handy when Harper became the leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. On May 28 of that year, he made his maiden speech as leader of the Opposition in the Commons. The occasion was a debate over an Alliance motion on lumber trade. More or less out of nowhere, Harper announced, “When it comes to United States-Canada relations, the government has much to learn from former prime minister Brian Mulroney . . . Under Mr. Mulroney, Canada-United States relations were infinitely better than they are now.” A Maclean’s reporter quizzed Harper afterward about the speech. “Frankly,” Harper said, “I’m making a political point.”
Seventeen months later Harper announced a deal with the new Progressive Conservative leader, Peter MacKay, to wind down their two parties as legal entities and launch a newly incorporated Conservative Party of Canada. Mulroney was a key behind-the-scenes player in cajoling Progressive Conservatives to sit down with the Alliance. But he was no great admirer of Harper. With former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Mulroney was a none-too-secret backer of millionaire car-parts heiress Belinda Stronach in the race to lead the new party.
Still, Conservatives handed Harper a first-ballot victory over Stronach and Tony Clement. It began to seem a wise choice. Harper made MacKay his deputy leader, wove members of both parties into an effective parliamentary caucus, and built a party office into which nobody was allowed to carry old grudges.
The figure of Brian Mulroney loomed large in Harper’s calculations in those early days of reconciliation. “At the very last Canadian Alliance caucus meeting,” one Harper minister recalls, “Stephen said, ‘We’re going to be building a party with people who revere Brian Mulroney. You need to forget everything you’ve been saying about him for years. And you need to know that right now, Peter MacKay is in their caucus room telling them the same thing about Preston Manning.’ ”
Amazingly, Mulroney became a close Harper adviser and confidant. They spoke on the phone all the time. Marjory LeBreton, a Mulroney-appointed senator who acted as his unfailing advocate on Parliament Hill, went on the campaign bus for Harper’s victorious 2006 campaign.
And they all would have lived happily ever after—except Conservatives almost never get to do that, do they? Every once in a while, old tensions would resurface. During the party’s first formal convention, in Montreal in 2005, a debate over delegate rules for future conventions pitted former Alliance members against former Progressive Conservatives. The former outnumbered the latter 10 to 1. Peter MacKay threw a strategic tantrum, telling reporters, “This party is in real jeopardy, in my view.” Harper kicked a chair over and, days later, took MacKay and Belinda Stronach into his office to berate them for airing the party’s dirty laundry in public. The incident led directly to Stronach’s departure from the party.
But none of that mattered much as long as it involved temporary tensions and minor characters. The saga of Mulroney’s dealings with Schreiber obeyed neither of those rules.
Mulroney had denied for years that he had any business dealings with Schreiber, a cheerfully crooked operator who faced extradition on charges of bribing German officials. But on Nov. 8, 2007, Schreiber filed an affidavit claiming he visited Mulroney on June 23, 1993—two days before Mulroney ended his term as prime minister. At that meeting, Schreiber claimed, he negotiated a $300,000 lobbying deal with Mulroney.
Suddenly Mulroney’s dealings with Schreiber weren’t necessarily those of a private citizen in retirement, but those of a serving politician. And his close relationship with his one-time apostate successor, Harper, meant allegations against Mulroney could hurt Harper.
Harper announced an independent review of Schreiber’s allegations. Mulroney said that wasn’t enough and called for a full public inquiry: “It’s time we put this issue to bed, once and for all.” Harper took Mulroney at his word and announced what would eventually become, in the fullness of bureaucratic time, the Oliphant commission. At a news conference announcing the commission, quite unprompted by reporters, Harper went a step further and cut the ties that connected the two prime ministers.
“I think it will be incumbent on me and also upon members of the government not to have dealings with Mr. Mulroney until this issue is resolved,’’ Harper said.
This was something new. “It put a suggestion of persona non grata on Mulroney,” L. Ian MacDonald, a Montreal political journalist who served for years as Mulroney’s chief speechwriter, wrote in his Gazette column. Harper’s hands-off-Mulroney edict, MacDonald wrote, “has created serious rumblings in the old Tory tent this week, especially in Quebec, where Mulroney is held in high regard.”
A year later Harper won re-election, no thanks to Quebec, where his government’s cuts to arts funding sparked a truly formidable voter backlash. Facing his own re-election campaign, Premier Jean Charest joined the criticism rather than defend Harper. In MacDonald’s Gazette column and others in Quebec newspapers, the theory spread that if Harper had kept lines of communication open to Mulroney, he wouldn’t have been so tone-deaf in Quebec.
Three days before Christmas 2008, Harper named 18 new Conservative senators. One was Irving Gerstein, the party’s chief fundraiser. Shortly after the New Year, Gerstein took a phone call from Mulroney.
“They had a nice long chat,” Robin Sears recalls. Mostly Mulroney wanted to congratulate Gerstein on landing a Senate perch. “Irv, being a good fundraiser, asked Mr. Mulroney whether he wanted to make his Leader’s Circle donation.” The Leader’s Circle is the list of top Conservative party donors.
“Mr. Mulroney said, ‘That’s a great idea, Irv, but as you know, they won’t talk to me, so I don’t think I’m in the Leader’s Circle any more.’ ” He added, according to Sears, that he would be happy to keep donating to Conservative party candidates he knew. Elections Canada records show that Brian and Mila Mulroney have donated almost $15,000 to the party and individual candidates since the 2004 election.
Now the thing to remember about Mulroney’s call to Gerstein is that it took place in January. And nobody heard any more about it until March 30 and 31, when reporters from at least three Ottawa news bureaus heard about it from officials in the Conservative party and the Harper government.
What happened in the meantime?
Clues might lie in the story that ran in Canwest newspapers on Sunday, March 29: “Mulroney reputation, legacy at stake as inquiry set to begin.” It’s an “understatement to say the stakes are high for Mr. Mulroney,” the story said, noting Schreiber’s claim to have evidence of “the biggest political scandal in the history of Canada.”
Each Monday morning at the Langevin Block meeting of the Prime Minister’s senior staff, Jenni Byrne, the director of issues management, reports to a group including the chief of staff, Guy Giorno, and the communication director, Kory Teneycke. Byrne’s role is to identify recent or coming events that might present political hazard or opportunity during the week ahead. The meeting starts at 7:30 a.m.; Harper enters around 8, if he is in town, or calls in if he is away. On this day he was in New York City, but it is impossible to know whether he called in to the March 30 meeting: in recent days, his office has stopped taking questions about Harper’s squabble with Mulroney.
Funny, they were a lot more chatty when this began. By March 31, a day after the senior staff meeting, three Ottawa news bureaus had been approached by PMO political staffers with the stale but suddenly handy “news” that Mulroney had asked to be stricken from Conservative party lists. And also that he had let his membership in the party lapse in 2006.
Tom Clark was the first with the news on CTV Newsnet. Robin Sears’ phone rang minutes later. “I got a call from the CBC saying CTV had a story saying, quote, ‘Mr. Mulroney has ripped up his membership card in frustration at the conduct of the Oliphant inquiry.’ Did I have any comment? I said I don’t know anything about that, let me check.”
Sears called Clark, who confirmed that was what he’d been told “by the PMO.” Then he called Mulroney, who took a little finding. A Monday evening dinner with Mila in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had turned into a two-day hospital stint with food poisoning. Sears asked Mulroney whether he had torn up his party card and set the party loose.
“I guess my job is to delete a few expletives here,” Sears says, recounting the conversation. Mulroney “said, ‘Just tell him that I am a member of the Conservative party and I will be one til the day I die.’ ”
By Tuesday night the story was leading the cable newscasts. The PMO sent “talking points” to MPs and staff, urging them to direct reporters’ questions to the PMO. Those who did call were informed, cheerfully but off the record, that Mulroney had taken it upon himself to sever ties with the party.
Heading into Wednesday’s caucus meeting, several MPs disagreed. “He is a member of the party, there’s no doubt,” MacKay told reporters. Jean-Pierre Blackburn added: “For me he will be a Conservative forever, and I’m sure that’s what he feels.”
Harper enforces discipline and secrecy on his party’s weekly caucus discussions. But Harper was in Europe, and in his absence the caucus’s factions bickered over the Mulroney question. Days later they were astonished to read a blow-by-blow account of their discussion in a Canadian Press report from Alexander Panetta. Who was breaking caucus secrecy?
Just before midnight on Saturday night, with the story now five days old and the CP story sure to give it legs, the PMO sent out a new set of talking points: play down the rift, refuse to talk, take the air out of the story. Somebody leaked the talking points to CTV reporter Bob Fife, who read them live on the air.
On Monday Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, got into the act. He said he had telephoned Mulroney to wish him a happy 70th birthday and that he was sorry Harper couldn’t show the big guy a little respect. Harper used to brag that he could “take a punch,” but those days are over. At a news conference in New Brunswick, he rose to Ignatieff’s bait.
“Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberal party—when this matter first broke—were practically demanding that I throw Mr. Mulroney in prison without a trial. Now they are out there pretending that somehow they are his best friends,” he said.
“I think what Canadians will see is that when it comes to a very difficult issue of government conduct and government ethics, this government has behaved responsibly and the other leader has absolutely no moral compass when it comes to dealing with this kind of a matter.”
No moral compass. Check. Hey, was Mulroney still a party member? “I can’t address that subject. I don’t honestly know the answer,” Harper said, nine days after his own staff had started telling reporters Mulroney wasn’t a member. “I’ve been reading and hearing different things.”
And with that, the story gurgled to a halt, at least officially. It’s a measure of the acrimony in this debate that Mulroney’s membership status could be debated for two weeks without being settled categorically. Is Mulroney a party member? “I confess I don’t know where the fact lies in this thing,” Sears said, disarmingly.
Don Plett, the Conservative party president, was more categorical. Mulroney had a membership during the calendar year 2006, and when it lapsed at the end of that year he didn’t buy a new annual card. Nor has he since.
Could Mulroney be a “member for life”? Perhaps he was in the Progressive Conservative party, Plett said. But that party ceased to exist in 2003. The new Conservative party doesn’t offer lifetime memberships.
By this point in the tale, Don Plett is in no mood to dig his heels in. “If Mr. Mulroney says he is a Conservative for life, that’s wonderful, so am I. Whether someone is a party member doesn’t, to my mind, affect whether they are a Conservative or not.”
Come again? Does Mulroney have the card he needs to participate in party activities? No, Plett said. “But if he wanted to, he would simply purchase a membership. I, for one, as president of the party, certainly consider him a Conservative for life. But that doesn’t mean he has a party membership.”
Clear as mud. What remains, as so often these days, is a set of questions about Stephen Harper’s political judgment.
It is worth emphasizing that he used to keep people on the payroll to question his judgment. Sources say that the voices that could most reliably be heard at Monday senior staff meetings questioning the boss’s decisions belonged to a cluster of, well, senior staffers: Ian Brodie, Sandra Buckler, Bruce Carson and Keith Beardsley. Only Brodie came from the Reform/Alliance wing of the party; the others were old Progressive Conservative hands. In the past year, all have been replaced.
One former PMO staffer calls the replacements—Giorno, Teneycke, Byrne—“cheerleaders” for Harper. Giorno, an Ontario strategist who became Mike Harris’s chief of staff after Harris had won his last election as premier, joined Harper with a mandate to make everything “more political.” He has certainly done that.
And with what results? In September Harper let slip a majority because his tone-deaf staff had misunderstood the reaction in Quebec to cuts in arts funding. In November Harper introduced an economic update that led, via a hair-raising parliamentary crisis, to the uncontested installation of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader. Now Harper has managed to split his own party. The man who won his job by uniting friends and dividing foes has now spent a calendar year doing the opposite. There is one man in Canada who knows better than any why that’s dumb. But Stephen Harper no longer takes his calls.