September 4, 1984: 36 years ago today, I was on an Air Canada flight from Ottawa, heading home to Calgary to start law school. The pilot came on the blower.
“For those of you who are wondering, we are hearing that the Liberal Party has lost every one of its seats,” he said. “And we have a new Conservative majority government.”
The plane erupted in cheers and applause – lots of it. Having just said goodbye to many of my Liberal friends at Ottawa polling stations, and having just finished working for a Liberal cabinet minister on the Hill, I slid further into my seat. A woman beside me noticed I wasn’t as deliriously happy as everyone else.
“I take it your friends have lost?” she asked.
“You could say that,” I said.
On the ground in Calgary, my Dad was there to collect me. We silently listened to John Turner’s concession speech on the way back to my folks’ home on the Bow River. Near the end, Turner said: “The people are always right.’
“I’m not so sure about that,” I responded, but – on reflection – I reckoned that Turner was indeed correct: the people are always right.
And the people had chosen Brian Mulroney, in record numbers. More than seventy-five per cent of eligible voters turned out to give Mulroney an astonishing 211 seats. The Liberals were reduced to a paltry 40 – only ten ahead of the New Democrats.
So began the Mulroney era, and a decade in the wilderness for the Liberal Party of Canada. It was an extraordinary decade, a time of great change, and it is hard to believe it all started 36 years ago today.
Not many in the media marked Mulroney’s September 4, 1984 triumph, and that is a shame. He changed Canada – not always for the good, but not entirely for the bad, either.
Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and assorted ministerial resignations, are always cited as the principal failures of the Mulroney era. But the former Conservative leader had successes, too: free trade, which his Liberal successor – my future boss, Jean Chretien – refused to undo. So, too, some of his major economic reforms, which arguably helped return the federation to balanced budgets and surpluses.
To not a few of us, his most singular achievement was his unflagging opposition to South Africa’s evil apartheid system. This placed him squarely against his closest conservative allies, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan. But Mulroney’s determination to end apartheid put him on the right side of history – and earned him the enduring friendship of Nelson Mandela.
Why does all this matter now, so many years later? Two reasons.
First, Mulroney extraordinary victory on September 4, 1984 – and the historic events that followed that day – should not be forgotten. Whether you approve of his tenure or not, Mulroney truly changed Canada.
The second reason really has nothing to do with Brian Mulroney at all. The second reason we should recall September 4 is this: when democratic political change comes, it sometimes comes in a way that is dramatic, decisive, and defining. It can be shocking.
That may be good, that may be bad. Depends on the team you belong to, I suppose.
One thing cannot be disputed, however:
As on September 4, 1984, as today, the people are always right.