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Don Martin: The Trudeau lessons from Brian Mulroney's legacy start with walking away

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Justin Trudeau should pay very close attention to the legacy treatment afforded former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who died on Thursday at age 84.

There’s the roadmap to a happy future for the ailing Liberal leader in the outpouring of all-party respect and affection for Mulroney, a politician so despised in 1993 that the annihilated Progressive Conservative caucus could’ve fit inside a sportscar in the election just ten weeks after he left office.

The first obvious lesson for the current prime minister is knowing when to leave.

Mulroney had a twin-majority winning streak, but his popularity had sunk to unrecoverable depths. The last poll before his resignation looked eerily like today’s lopsided numbers. The Progressive Conservatives had collapsed to 21 per cent in the early 1993 Gallup poll while Liberals sat at 49 per cent voter support. Mulroney surrendered to common electoral sense and quit.

But the current prime minister seems in narcissistic denial to his potential electoral fate, the political manifestation of the classic Monty Python parrot where he’s poised to become a ceased-to-exist, ex-prime minister surrounded by staff who insist he’s simply pining for the fjords. Trudeau might want to take a hint from history, a resignation which seems increasingly unlikely.

But there are other sources of inspiration in the Mulroney record that Trudeau could take to heart as he’s besieged by retirement recommendations.

For starters, the big stuff matters.

Long after the scars from the ArriveCan boondoggle and his many ethical lapses have faded from public memory, Justin Trudeau may well command grudging respect for his child-care, dental coverage and pharmacare programs.

As much as Mulroney’s acid rain treaty, South Africa anti-apartheid campaign and free trade deal were Canadian foreign relations triumphs, the social supports this Trudeau government has enacted form a nation-defining safety net.

And while the cost of delivering those programs is daunting, Trudeau could take note that deficits don’t seem to matter much when sizing up a prime minister’s legacy.

Canada was deep in a fiscal crisis under Mulroney’s time, saddled with an escalating deficit exacerbated by rising interest rates and a sagging economy. The PC tried to curb spending and raise taxes, but the red ink continued to gush.

Mulroney’s fiscal mess forced the Liberals to swing the spending axe following the election, but there’s little to no mention of his government’s deficit and debt failures in any legacy analysis.

Speaking of the coverage, it’s also clear there’s damage control in the passing of time.

For a while there, Mulroney’s record looked like it was heading for legal trouble. But no charges were laid after a 2010 public inquiry concluded Mulroney acted “inappropriately” by taking undisclosed cash as a private citizen from German-Canadian arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber. While looked like sufficiently gooey tar and feathers to permanently stain any politician’s credibility, it didn’t seem to stick to Mulroney’s elder stateman reputation.

Finally, the Mulroney legacy textbook proves that being nice pays off. Stories are gushing forth about Mulroney’s personal outreach to friends and foes alike, but there’s a curious lack of similar empathy coming out of Trudeau’s PMO.

Trudeau might well be a superior people person who relishes being in a crowd of supporters, but he’s a cold fish to fellow politicians. He forgets the official Opposition isn’t supposed to be taken personally and spends little time nurturing relationships with his own MPs.

The last time I talked to Mulroney, he was arriving at the Chateau Laurier for a Power Play interview and we ran into Jean Chretien on the front steps. The former prime ministerial pair warmly shook hands and spent a good ten minutes chatting, amicably punctuated by plenty of laughs before they moved on.

No grudges were held, no acrimony lingered. That’s the way it should be in politics, but it’s inconceivable imagining the harshly judgmental Trudeau having that sort of happy-to-see-you encounter with the equally unforgiving Pierre Poilievre or Stephen Harper, even well into their old age.

There are, of course, stark differences which will complicate Trudeau enjoying the same post-politics stature as Mulroney.

By the scheduled 2025 election, Trudeau will be the same age as Mulroney was when he retired. But Trudeau lacks gravitas in business and world diplomatic circles, which will make it difficult for the former school teacher to retire to law offices, corporate boards and global speaking tours.

Even so, Mulroney proved lofty legacies take time to root and grow.

To that end, the first step for Trudeau to take to follow in Mulroney’s footsteps is to walk away before he gets drummed out. Otherwise, he risks becoming his own version of Kim Campbell and carrying the legacy of a loser.

That’s the bottom line.

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