Viewpoint: Broken Promises in the Great White North


In September 1984, Conservative Party candidate for prime minister Brian Mulroney was swept into office in the greatest landslide in Canadian history. His party won 211 of a possible 282 seats in Ottawa's House of Commons, while the powerful and traditionally dominant Liberal Party won just 40 seats.

Mulroney's smashing triumph brought to an end the stormy 16-year rule of Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man who once listed his heroes as Machiavelli, Mao, and Castro, though not necessarily in that order. In his youth, Trudeau had belonged to a small socialist party and spent his time excoriating liberals as "idiots" and "nonentities." Realizing that he would never become prime minister as an overt socialist, Trudeau eventually joined the idiots.

His career took off like a rocket. He was appointed minister of justice in 1967, and one year later Canada, in a fit of "Trudeaumania," elected him prime minister. Trudeau retired after 16 years of trying "to discover how much socialism the people of Canada can be made to accept at any given point in time." There ensued a bitter struggle among his would-be heirs.

Former Minister of Finance John Turner emerged from a contentious convention the winner in a field of seven. But in the general election, the bland Turner was no match for the magnetic Mulroney, who won easily even in the Liberal stronghold of Quebec.

Mulroney's pre-election promises were legion. He would, he promised:

  • slash Canada's Yankee-like budget deficit (it is 7.1 percent of its gross national product, compared with 4.4 percent in the United States),
  • strengthen the feeble dollar, down to 72 cents against the US greenback,
  • sell off many government-owned enterprises,
  • repeal a Trudeau-sponsored law mandating the metric system, and
  • curtail Canada's outrageous patronage and sinecure system.

Once safely in office, however, Mulroney retreated from his pledges.

In just one year the deficit has jumped from $36 billion to $40 billion. The dollar's US exchange rate appears in danger of falling below 70 cents. But as the economy weakens, the Conservatives increase the size of the Cabinet and send foreign aid to dictators in Nicaragua, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

There has been no success on the privatization front, either. Government-owned corporations such as Petro Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Canadair, and de Havilland Aircraft remain in the state's hands. Whether any private firm would even want these debt-laden dinosaurs is another question—Canadair lost $1.7 billion in only two years, while de Havilland was comparatively profitable with losses of just $500 million.

Mulroney's response to the populist outcry against metric tyranny was similarly limp. Metric is to stay the official measurement. Businesses, he said, may advertise in both metric and imperial (the traditional measurement)—but not in imperial only.

The battle over mandatory use of the metric system has been fierce and, I think, underreported in the United States. The cause célèbre of the antimetric crowd involved two gas station owners who defied the Trudeau government's dictates and sold gasoline in both liters and gallons so their "customers could have a choice." The feds came and sealed their pumps; the two protesters promptly cut the seals and were immediately issued felony warrants.

Their legal costs ran into the thousands of dollars, and a fund was set up to help defray these expenses. Sympathetic Canadians staffed picket lines at both gas stations, demanding that the government rescind the metric law and allow Canadians freedom of choice. Tens of thousands of signatures against forced metric were gathered, and bumper stickers were ubiquitous.

The two took their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and won. The Trudeau government appealed the decision, thus denying court-ordered recompense to the two rebels for the months, or perhaps years, that the case will remain in the courts.

When Mulroney took office and reneged on his commitment to make metric voluntary, he left the renegades in that legal limbo. He could simply order the government to drop the appeal, but he hasn't. So much for voluntary metric.

Mulroney was a vehement critic of liberal abuses of patronage when he was an opposition leader, but he seems to have undergone a change of heart since the election. In one year in office he has appointed more than 1,200 of his Tory friends and political supporters to high-salaried positions. It makes the poor Liberals look like pikers!

Canadians have always been a proud, hardy people, but 16 years of Trudeau's socialism have taken their toll. The purchasing power of the Canadian dollar has fallen by 69 percent. Monthly housing payments have skyrocketed 380 percent. The number of government employees has soared by 39 percent. Bankruptcies are up 315 percent. Canada is choking on excessive government regulation of the economy, and her spirit is flagging.

Many Canadians hoped that Brian Mulroney had the right stuff to halt Canada's decline. But the buoyant prime minister has betrayed those hopes in his first year in office. It's business as usual in Canada, and that's not good news.

Bruce Evoy is REASON's Canadian correspondent.