The Weekly Wrap: Brian Mulroney’s place in history

Sean Speer's subscriber's-only note on politics and policy
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan walk past a line of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, March 17, 1985, at the Quebec City airport.  Paul Chiasson/CP.

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on some of the past week’s biggest stories, including the death and legacy of Brian Mulroney, the plight of the Israeli hostages, the government’s new pharmacare legislation, and Jamil Jivani’s prospects as a major player in the Conservative Party.

Mulroney should be remembered as a major conservative reformer

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shared with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a common assessment of the need to roll back the state and free up the market in domestic policy and pursue an ultimate victory in the Cold War in foreign and defence policy. Yet while history cites him as their key contemporary—and a major partner along with Germany’s Helmet Kohl—he’s rarely been canonized by conservatives as their peer in an ideological movement that ultimately reshaped Anglo-American politics in a rightward direction. 

One possible explanation is that Mulroney spoke less in conservative first principles than Reagan or Thatcher. His conservatism was more instinctive—rooted in the practical lessons of a childhood in Baie Comeau—than it was the product of studying the texts of Friedrich Hayek. His speeches therefore tended to be less about freedom and liberty and other high-minded conservative ideals and more about the real-life needs and challenges of Canadians growing up in communities like his own. 

Yet there’s a case that notwithstanding Mulroney’s pragmatic presentation, his economic policy reforms—including a major privatization programme, collapsing the number of personal income tax brackets from 10 to three, and securing a historic free trade deal with the United States—actually matched or even exceeded the policy ambition of the Reagan Administration or the Thatcher government. His policy record must be properly understood as a major conservative reformer. 

Proof of his success is that the subsequent Liberal government led by Jean Chrétien not only accepted but even deepened his reforms. The 1995 budget’s major fiscal reforms that eventually achieved Ottawa’s first balanced budget in decades and the 2000 Fall Economic Statement that enacted sweeping tax reductions on businesses, capital and individuals were built on the intellectual foundation established during the Mulroney era. His market-oriented impulses animated Canadian policy and politics for the subsequent two decades or more. We lived in the policymaking world that he created. 

There are few paradigmatic prime ministers in Canadian history. Sir John A. Macdonald, William Mackenzie King, arguably Pierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney. Many of the others have had great accomplishments but they’ve by and large operated in an ideological and political framework set by someone else. 

Mulroney should therefore be viewed as a highly consequential prime minister and a conservative reformer who contributed to an ideas revolution around the Western world. He was a “true champion of freedom and democracy” as Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation noted in a statement upon his passing. Not bad for a boy from Baie Comeau. 

We cannot forget the Israeli hostages

The biggest (and most regrettable) international news this week is that Hamas has reportedly rejected an agreement to release more Israeli hostages in exchange for a six-week ceasefire in the ongoing war. At the time of writing, it’s unclear whether this is merely a negotiating tactic or represents a major setback in efforts to free the outstanding hostages. 

The apparent breakdown in talks comes in advance of next week’s five-month anniversary of Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel which left 1,200 dead and more than 240 hostages taken into captivity. Just over 105 hostages have since been released. Israel believes that there are 130 others remaining—though there are estimates that as many as 30 or 50 may no longer be alive. 

The hostages are central to Israel’s domestic politics and ceasefire negotiations. Pressure is mounting within the country to bring the remaining hostages home. According to reports, the Israeli government is even prepared to release Palestinian prisoners on a ten-to-one basis. 

Yet the plight of hostages has been diminished in the public consciousness in Canada, the United States, and other Western countries. Their voices have been drowned out by loud protests and stripped out of a lot of media reporting altogether. As The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz noted in a recent episode of Hub Dialogues, many Western news stories about the Israel-Hamas conflict these days don’t even bother to reference the October 7 attacks anymore. 

I encountered this trend at The Hub this week. We received an otherwise thoughtful submission about Canadian policy regarding the conflict that called on the Trudeau government to take various actions (including calling for the war’s end) but left the demand that Hamas return the hostages unsaid. The authors subsequently told me that they assumed it was implicit. But it shouldn’t be implicit. It must be explicit. 

We cannot lose sight of the fact that Hamas is holding as many as 130 hostages including Kfir Babas, the youngest Israeli held in captivity, who celebrated his first birthday in January and whose welfare remains unknown. Our moral outrage shouldn’t subside or be redirected elsewhere. Hamas took this baby, his family, and hundreds of others (including dozens with foreign passports) and refuses to free the remaining hostages even if it comes at the expense of Palestinian civilians. It tells you that they hate Jews more than they care about the well-being of their own people. 

As my former boss Stephen Harper wrote in a recent op-ed, it’s not reasonable to demand that Israel cease its military campaign before its people are returned home and Hamas is defeated. Virtually any other outcome amounts to a victory for Hamas and those who support its goal of terrorizing and ultimately destroying the State of Israel. 

Sometimes we can overstate the complexity of geopolitical issues. We can be too self-conscious to assert that something that others claim is complex is actually rather simple. The Israel-Hamas war is a prime example. 

Hamas terrorists entered Israel in the morning hours of October 7 with the intent to rape, brutalize, murder, and ultimately take captive its civilians. Nearly 150 days later, they are prepared to tolerate the ongoing devastation of Gaza rather than free Kfir Babas and his family. You don’t need a PhD (and evidently having one may even be an impediment) to see with moral clarity that the West’s position should be unequivocal: free Kfir and the other hostages now.  

Families of hostages and former hostages taken on October 7 hold images on a podium at a protest near the International Crime Court at The Hague during a protest in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. Martin Meissner/AP Photo.
An alternative to the government’s new pharmacare legislation

The biggest domestic political development in Canada this week is the tabling of new pharmacare legislation that fulfills a major part of the Trudeau government’s parliamentary agreement with the New Democrats and should therefore prolong the current Parliament until the fixed election date in 2025. This has obvious political implications for the government, which polls tell us would quite likely suffer a significant defeat if an election were held today. An additional 19 months may provide the prime minister the time to improve his political fortunes. 

But the pharmacare deal isn’t noteworthy merely because of its politics. It also potentially has huge policy consequences for how Canadians access pharmaceutical drugs. 

Start with the legislation itself. The pharmacare bill represents an incremental nod to a more ambitious single-payer model for public drug coverage. It begins with a small number of drugs (including diabetes medication and contraception) but envisions expanding the formulary over time in cooperation with the provinces. 

Health Minister Mark Holland affirmed that the government is committed to pursuing “full coverage so everybody can afford their medication.” The Council of Canadians, a progressive organization in favour of full single-payer public insurance, similarly called the legislation “the foundation for universal, single-payer coverage…to expand in order to fully meet the needs of people in Canada and realize the full cost-saving potential of bulk-buying medications.” 

The principal case for a single-payer pharmcare model is that there’s a share of the population estimated to be roughly 20 percent that doesn’t have some form of public and private insurance and must therefore pay for drugs with out-of-pocket dollars. Roughly 55 percent of Canadians have employer-provided drug coverage. Another 20 percent or so are eligible for public insurance programs based on income level or age. Something approaching 10 percent has associational or individual insurance plans. 

The key point here is that although the vast majority of Canadians tell pollsters that they’re satisfied with their drug coverage in terms of affordability and access, there is a share of the population that’s unserved by the status quo.  

Numbers aren’t enough however to assess the case for (or against) pharmacare. It’s useful to drill down deeper to understand who these people are. The population without public or private insurance is, generally speaking, composed of working-age Canadians who don’t have employer-provided plans but whose incomes exceed the means-test threshold for public plans. This cohort can range from those in “gig work” (think for instance Uber drivers) to professional contract workers to management executives. 

The problem of uninsured Canadians, in other words, is a nuanced one that’s presumably different than most people conceive of it. Most of them are generally not young, old, or poor. Many in fact may be making a rational decision to pay out-of-pocket rather than carry the cost of a private drug plan because of their age and income. 

These considerations ought to be fundamental to the pharmacare debate. There’s risk otherwise that the goal of single-payer coverage (which by definition involves replacing the current hybrid system of public and private coverage) disrupts a satisfactory status quo for millions of Canadians to solve a perceived problem that may not actually be much of a problem. It seems odd to disrupt a system that’s working for roughly 80 percent of Canadians to extend coverage to relatively high-income workers like me. 

A better alternative to a mandatory, single-payer pharmacare program is more surgical and targeted solutions that could better support low-income Canadians who may be falling through the cracks to obtain drug coverage.

One option is to transfer funding to the provinces to expand their means-tested and age-based programs. Another is to reform the federal Medical Expense Tax Credit to make it refundable, more generous, and means-tested to help those who aren’t covered by pre-existing public and private plans purchase their own insurance. These options would not only be cheaper and expand individual choice, but they’d leave in place the status quo for the millions of Canadians for whom it’s currently working. 

Jamil Jivani: rising Conservative star?

Permit me one more item in this week’s Weekly Wrap. 

This upcoming Monday (March 6) is the federal byelection in the riding of Durham which former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole previously held and Conservative candidate Jamil Jivani is expected to hold. 

Jivani (who I should disclose is a friend) has the potential to be a significant player in Conservative politics. He’s a Yale law graduate, a movement conservative who previously headed the Canada Strong and Free Network, and an outspoken critic of the immense social pressure that Black Canadians face to conform to progressive stereotypes.

But he’s not only a critic of left-wing shibboleths. He’s also been prepared to challenge conservatism to the extent that it can be unrooted from the people and communities for whom he’s dedicated his activism. His own conservatism is solidly working-class. As he put it in a past episode of Hub Dialogues:

 …being a conservative, doesn’t, at least from my point of view, mean necessarily the sort of Ronald Reagan definition of conservatism; the neoliberal sort of definition of conservatism that I think a lot of people have been accustomed, whether it’s culture or politics, to believe is the only way conservatives can address these sorts of issues.

Jivani comes to these views earnestly. He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood without his father which he has characterized as a formative part of his identity. He wrote a book about the challenges facing young men and has spent hours mentoring boys and men who’ve grown up in similar circumstances as his own. He’s faced off with large corporations and earned a reputation for being tough and uncompromising on matters of principle.

If Jivani wins on Monday, he’ll definitely be someone to watch in Ottawa. His unique voice and perspective will position him to make a significant contribution to Conservative politics in the short- and long-term.

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