Remembering Brian Mulroney’s Iconic Debates

Brian Mulroney passed away the night before this week’s class. It is my custom to begin class with short videos. My students were born in 2005, so I was sure they would have little knowledge of Mulroney. Showing a video of Mulroney would therefore be a teachable moment. But what to show? The Aristotelian logos-ethos-pathos trichotomy of persuasion is a theme of my course. Political debate is a classic form of persuasion. Immediately two iconic moments of Mulroney’s debates with Liberal leader John Turner came to mind.

You Had an Option, Sir

The first was the exchange in the 1984 debate with then Prime Minister John Turner about Turner’s ratification of outgoing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s numerous eleventh-hour patronage appointments. Turner twice said that he had no option. Mulroney didn’t accept that and argued that the country deserved better than the Liberals’ old attitudes and old stories of patronage appointments (logos). He made his point by throwing Turner’s words back at him with the repeated accusation “you had an option, sir!” (pathos). Mulroney referred to Turner as “sir” and used the phrase “if I may say respectfully” but the force of his accusation, accompanied by pointing at Turner like a prosecutor, was clear. In contrast, Turner’s repeated phrase, “I had no option,” accompanied by exculpatory spreading of his hands, sounded and looked weak. Admitting political impotence when one takes office is no way to keep the office. This exchange was that rare moment in political debate, a knockout punch. My students, despite their unfamiliarity with the context or the combatants, nonetheless recognized it.

This exchange is between 35 seconds and 1 minute and 15 seconds in the following clip.

With One Signature of a Pen

Mulroney and Turner had their rematch four years later debating Mulroney’s free trade agreement with the US. This time, Turner accused Mulroney of weakness, namely negotiating an agreement that would “reduce [Canada] to a colony of the United States because, when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow.” Here Turner had a clear message (logos) that he delivered fervently and energetically (pathos).

Mulroney tried to advance a counter-narrative that would disrupt Turner’s narrative. He interrupted Turner several times claiming that his arguments were wrong and wrong again. Mulroney also evoked pathos, declaring that Turner had no monopoly on patriotism and that he himself loved Canada and was, in his modest way, engaging in nation building. Mulroney even reversed himself. After claiming that the free trade agreement would promote Canadian prosperity, he responded to Turner’s argument about political domination by downplaying the treaty as nothing more than a “commercial agreement” that “could be terminated with six months’ notice.” Turner rebutted this argument by arguing that the treaty related to every facet of Canadian life and would be far more important to Canada than to the US.

At the end of this round of the debate – in my view and in at least the view of some of my students – Turner had advanced a coherent argument that Mulroney sniped at, but did not destroy. Ultimately, the Conservatives won the election, in part due to the strength of the arguments supporting the agreement, especially those advanced by the business community, in the days following the debate.

Single-issue elections are rare, and debates of this forcefulness and quality are also rare. Both men’s arguments about impact of economic integration with the US continue to echo through Canadian public policy and politics.

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