‘There are a lot of people down there in that administration who are protectionists, whereas Ronald Reagan and Bush and Clinton were free traders’
ANTIGONISH, N.S. — It may be imperfect, but the new NAFTA is a “good deal” for Canada, Brian Mulroney said Wednesday, despite Andrew Scheer’s insistence that the Americans “took it all.”
The current administration in Washington is different from others of the past, Mulroney said Wednesday after the official opening of a new governance centre at St. Francis Xavier University, bearing his name.
“There are a lot of people down there in that administration who are protectionists, whereas (former U.S. presidents) Ronald Reagan and (George H.W.) Bush and (Bill) Clinton were free traders. So, it made it easier for me than it is for the present government,” Mulroney, who was prime minister when both the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement were negotiated, told reporters.
“In those circumstances you’ve got to put water in your wine, if you’re going to try to do these big deals. You can’t walk in there and say, ‘I’m holding all the cards and I’m from Canada and if you don’t do what I say, to hell with you.’ Well, you’re not going to go very far with that.”
During an impromptu press conference on his campaign plane last weekend, Scheer said U.S. President Donald Trump had “run the table” on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and accused Trudeau of capitulating while the American president “took it all.”
“What did we get in return? Where are the wins,” Scheer asked. “I would challenge anyone to tell me where we are better off.”
It wasn’t the first time the Conservative leader has lambasted Trudeau over the new trade deal, nor is Mulroney the first former Conservative MP to publicly contradict Scheer. Rona Ambrose, who was interim Conservative leader after the party’s 2015 election defeat, said in an interview earlier this month that while Trudeau did offer up limited access to Canada’s dairy sector, “I think at the end of the day, we came out doing well.”
Speaking at his alma mater Wednesday, Mulroney said Canada made some concessions — and Mexico particularly so — as did the United States.
“And so we came together with what I think is a good deal. Is it perfect? No… There’s no perfection, and this isn’t perfect, either. But in the circumstances it’s good — good for Canada.”
The Trump administration’s protectionism was a formidable obstacle, Mulroney said.
In an earlier interview with the Post, Mulroney said that, whether free trade or pipelines, the federal election campaign should be about leadership. “The prime minister has to be the principle leader of the country, so he’s got to take all the hits. If you want to be popular, get out of the game. Or, remain popular and achieve very little of big-ticket items.”
During his speech marking the opening of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and Mulroney Hall — a $100 million legacy project some have said is Mulroney’s shot at redemption, others a chance to celebrate the policy achievements of a highly activist prime minister — Mulroney said that, despite a “sometimes tumultuous life, never once did it ever occur to me, not for a second, to quit.”
Mulroney was piped into the 300-seat auditorium with his wife Mila, who waved and threw a kiss to the audience. During an at-times emotional speech, Mulroney’s voice broke, and he had to pause to compose himself, while speaking about his father. The former PM also thanked the generosity of the donors, as well as Justin Trudeau for his “unflagging support of our efforts.” The federal government contributed $30 million to the project.
Afterwards, speaking with reporters, the elder Conservative statesman said Canada is fortunate to have “good, young leaders like Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau.”
Mulroney, 80, said he doesn’t personally know NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, “but everybody tells me he’s a fine young man.”
“And (Green leader) Elizabeth May, who’s not so much in the young class, but she’s in the experienced class. She knows what the hell is going on, particularly in the environment, where she knows more than anybody else practising politics in Canada.”
“I think these people have the potential to become great leaders,” Mulroney said.
In an interview, Fen Osler Hampson, Chancellor’s professor at Carleton University, said the new institute is a fitting tribute to Canada’s 18th prime minister.
“In policy terms, it was truly transformative,” Hampson, author of Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy, said of Mulroney’s nine years in office. “We had the free trade agreement, but I think it’s fair to say that on the international stage, Canada never stood taller, in terms of both moral and substantive leadership.”