Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Legend of Brian Mulroney

Actually, our former Prime Minister is more a legend in his own mind, but then, confronting harsh reality has never been one of Mr. Mulroney's strong suits. His litigious past serves as ample testament to that fact.

But myth is always much more exciting than truth, and what better myth could Mulroney propagate than the one about the free-trade agreement his government negotiated 25 years ago with the United States? Last week, he made an appearance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman business school, where more than 700 guests gathered to commemorate his government's 'great' achievement. In his usual hyperbolic and self-congratulatory tone, in an hour-long chat with Rotman professor Joseph Martin, Canada's erstwhile 'leader' asserted that his accomplishments will stand among the greatest in Canada’s history, one of his proudest being the free-trade agreement. Indeed, he even went so far as to describe the pact as “the greatest in the history of the world.”

It is an assessment with which many would strongly disagree. One of the dissenters is The Star's Bob Hepburn who, on February 21, wrote a piece entitled Brian Mulroney and the harsh reality of Canada-U.S. free trade. He begins by reminding readers of some harsh truths that Mulroney seems unwilling to confront:

One morning 10 years ago, my brother lost his long-time job when the owners of the Scarborough electronic parts factory where he worked announced it was closing the plant and moving its operations to Chicago.

Soon after, his company shut down two other factories in Oakville, tossing 400 employees out of work. The jobs were shifted to the U.S. and Mexico. A bit later, the Markham electronics company where my niece had worked also closed its doors. It, too, moved its jobs outside of Canada.

The owners never admitted it, but workers were convinced a major reason why the companies closed the Ontario plants was the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement reached in 1987 under former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The deal, which was the focal point of the 1988 federal election, eliminated import tariffs on most products, resulting in many profit-hungry companies closing plants here and moving the jobs to cheap-labour areas.

And Hepburn is not alone. Economist Jim Stanford, quoted in Hepburn's piece, wrote an article for he Progressive Economics Forum, replete with empirical date that shows those who extol the agreement are living in a world of fantasy and faith, a world typical of right-wing ideology, one fueld by the tactic of repeating something enough times so that its veracity is rarely called into question.

Citing government statistics, Stamford observes that our exports to the U.S. are at the same percentage level as in the mid-1980s, that our trade deficit is the highest ever, that our productivity has fallen in comparison with the U.S and that income levels of most Canadians in real terms are unchanged.

Then there are those who believe, using both anecdotal and empirical evidence, that people are decidedly worse off since the free trade deal was concluded. Youth unemployment hovers somewhere between 14 and 15%. People's lives are on hold. A study released today, conducted by McMaster University and the United Way, finds that the rate of insecure or precarious work has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years and is impacting everything from people’s decision to form relationships, have children and volunteer in their community.

Indeed, the statistic are grim:

- Barely half of working adults in the GTA and Hamilton have full-time jobs with benefits and expect to be working for their current employer a year from now;

- The other half are working either full- or part-time with no benefits or no job security, or in temporary, contract or casual positions.

And while statistic may seem dull and unevocative, the accompanying profiles are anything but, ranging as they do from a 27 year-old university lecturer struggling to cobble together a career that could take him far from his wife and young son to a 60-year-old home-care nurse whose working conditions and hours are anything but stable.

Just don't expect Mr. Mulroney, in his present and persistent self-congratulatory mood, to be moved by their plight.


  1. Hi Lorne, This study has touched a nerve apparent by the amount of conversation it has stoked and yes I agree it is the profiles that give it life.

    Who among us doesn't know someone whose experience is reflected in at least one of those.

  2. Sadly, Kev, it is indeed reflected in far too many.

  3. It should be clear by the pattern Mulroney set with NAFTA, Lorne, that free trade was not -- as he claimed -- about "jobs, jobs, jobs."

    It was about protecting investors' interests.

  4. Unfortunately, the success of such protection has emboldened more and more corporations to demand even greater concessions, Owen, from all of us.