Mulroney wades where Harper won't - in support of Obama in U.S. health debate

MONTREAL - A Conservative prime minister has launched a stirring defence of universal health care, and lauded Barack Obama in his bare-knuckle political battle to extend benefits to all Americans.

MONTREAL - A Conservative prime minister has launched a stirring defence of universal health care, and lauded Barack Obama in his bare-knuckle political battle to extend benefits to all Americans.

But it's not the current Conservative prime minister. Brian Mulroney used a speech to 1,500 Conservative supporters to wade where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has steadfastly refused to venture: the bitter U.S. debate over health reform.

The former prime minister drew parallels between Obama's uphill fight to reform health care to his own struggles as prime minister, which may have cost him popularity but benefited the country.

"Political capital is acquired to be spent in great causes for one's nation," Mulroney said Thursday.

"Prime ministers are not chosen to seek popularity.... They are chosen to provide leadership. . . President Obama is fighting for a form of universal health care and is encountering ferocious resistance.

"The attacks on President Obama are often bitter and mean-spirited and his approval ratings, his popularity, are sinking like a stone. Still, he fights on. . .

"Fifty years from today, Americans will revere the name, 'Obama.' Because like his Canadian predecessors, he chose the tough responsibilities of national political leadership over the meaningless nostrums of sterile partisanship that we see too much of in Canada and around the world today."

The vast, crowded hotel ballroom went silent at that part of Mulroney's speech. One woman was seen snickering.

It didn't take long for tongues to start wagging that Mulroney's speech - which, in 40 minutes, mentioned old Liberal and NDP opponents but never once uttered the name 'Harper' - was a craftily designed swipe at the prime minister.

Mulroney's eagerness to take sides in the U.S. health debate was a stark and obvious contrast from Harper's reluctance to touch that political powder keg.

Half of Harper's cabinet was there watching the speech, while the prime minister himself was in the U.S. following a meeting with Obama.

At the height of the health debate this summer, while American town-hall meetings were occasionally erupting in fisticuffs, Harper and Obama met at a Three Amigos summit in Mexico.

During a news conference in front of media from three countries, as he stood next to Obama, Harper was asked about the U.S. battle and whether there was anything worth emulating about Canadian medicare, like its universal coverage.

Harper replied that it was a foreign debate and, besides, health care was the provinces' business - not the federal government's.

Harper's Liberal opponents blasted him for passing up what might have been an opportunity to help a powerful ally.

But Mulroney was more than happy to make that a highlight of a long-awaited speech to hundreds of Conservative faithful.

A who's who of Canadian conservatives, past and present, converged for a 25th anniversary celebration of Mulroney's first election win, with some looking to reinforce party unity and others just there for the get-together.

The downtown Montreal hotel where the event was taking place was buzzing with hundreds of conservatives, including ex-New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and former prime minister Joe Clark.

The prime minister made a cameo appearance through a tape-recorded message. Harper also called Mulroney from the U.S., where he was speaking to business leaders after meeting with Obama.

The men had gone two years without speaking to each other. In his videotaped message, Harper called free trade with the U.S. Mulroney's "greatest achievement."

Mulroney, for his part, also addressed some of his own failures.

He lamented the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord and, without referring explicitly to his infamous cash exchanges with Karlheinz Schreiber, Mulroney took a moment to note past mistakes.

"We had our achievements, as well, and we also made our share of mistakes - no one more than me," Mulroney said.

"You are all familiar with some of my errors of judgement."

Political veterans filed into a ballroom decorated with the old Progressive Conservative party banner, and souvenir campaign posters that were a throwback to the era of Culture Club and Loverboy.

"I'm very pleased that this is being done," said Clark, who underlined he is not a member of the current Conservative party.

"It focused naturally on Brian and Mila but it's also about a government that has a great deal to be proud of, that accomplished a lot.

"We took on big challenges across a wide range of issues. We got elected, but we didn't stop there. We put office to work to try and change the country."

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams said he had come to pay tribute to Mulroney, for whom he did some work in the 1980s.

"He enabled us to be in a very, very strong financial position that we're in now," Williams said.

"If I did not have an Atlantic Accord to work with when I became premier, it might not have enabled me to do the things we're doing in Newfoundland and Labrador."

While the evening was first designed as a reunion for those who experienced the thrill of 1984, it quickly took on deeper overtones.

It became an opportunity to heal a rift between the Mulroney folks and Harper's camp, an unwelcome fissure in a party founded on a truce between its once-warring Reform and Progressive Conservative wings.

Relations between Harper and Mulroney have been severely strained since Harper called a public inquiry into Mulroney's business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, and directed his cabinet to cut off contact with the Tory icon.

Things worsened when members of Harper's entourage went around telling journalists that Mulroney was no longer a member of the party.

The clumsy move, aimed at distancing Harper from Mulroney as the inquiry unfolded, simply incensed Mulroney loyalists within the current cabinet and caused the first display of revolt by Harper's normally disciplined troops.

The feud created a divide between party brass, mostly old Reformers who saw Mulroney as an opponent, and old PCers who see the former prime minister as a lifelong friend and mentor.

Angry Tories leaked details of behind-closed-door caucus meetings. MacKay found himself pleading with party president Don Plett, now a senator, to reinstate Mulroney as a member and was resoundingly rebuffed.

Loyalty to Mulroney runs deep in conservative circles, despite the beating his reputation has taken at different points over the past 25 years.

Many of those who worked with him or in his caucus describe a leader who took a personal interest in people around him, remembered names, and always picked up the phone to make a call at life's important or difficult moments.

About half the current Conservative cabinet agreed to attend Thursday, including several old Reformers and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

Transport Minister John Baird, who was a 15-year-old messenger at PC headquarters in 1984, downplayed the political significance of the presence of so many from Harper's team.

"It's exciting to be here and celebrate a great conservative victory in this country, to celebrate the end of the Trudeau era and all of the great things that were accomplished - free trade, tax reform, a great international presence," said Baird.

His victory in 1984 was a heady time for the Tories as the party grabbed a majority for the first time since John Diefenbaker in 1958. Life on Parliament Hill was turned on its head as conservatives moved into positions of power.

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