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Brian Mulroney urges Canadian politicians to take action on climate change, despite political risk

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September.
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September.

'Successful leaders do not impose unpopular ideas on the public, successful leaders make unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation,' the former PM said

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney is urging Canadian political leaders to take ambitious steps on fighting climate change, even if those steps are deeply unpopular with your own voter base.

“Change of any kind requires risk, political risk,” Mulroney said in prepared remarks for a Tuesday night speech in Toronto, where he was accepting an environmental leadership award from charitable organization Pollution Probe.

“Those who aspire to national leadership must craft an agenda that responds to the hopes and aspirations of all Canadians. Small, divisive agendas make for a small, divided country. It is not enough to simply please ‘the base,’ ” he said.

“As difficult as the process may be to arrest and to mitigate the effects of global warming, the work cannot be left to the next fellow. The stakes are too high, the risks to our planet and the human species too grave.”

Mulroney never specifically advocates for carbon pricing in the speech, nor does he single out any Conservative politicians. But he does commend Catherine McKenna, the Liberal environment minister since 2015, for her work.

“As St. Thomas Aquinas admonished leaders everywhere, and for every age: ‘If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever,’ ” he said. “That was not my way when I was Prime Minister and it cannot be our way now. In fact, Minister McKenna has worked in a highly challenging area for the last four years in a competent manner in which she sought to advance our national interest as she saw it.”

Mulroney, leading what was then the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, won back-to-back majority government in 1984 and 1988. Two of his children, Caroline Mulroney (a cabinet minister and ex-leadership candidate for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives) and Mark Mulroney (a managing director with Scotiabank), are frequently mentioned as potential federal Conservative leaders.

“I came to office as Prime Minister determined to place the environment at the top of our national priorities,” Mulroney said in the speech’s opening line.

Change of any kind requires risk, political risk

He touted his government’s environmental achievements, from the clean-up of the Great Lakes to the 1991 Acid Rain Accord. He put particular emphasis on the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, citing observers who have called it “the most successful global environmental treaty.”

Mulroney urged Canadian politicians to avert their eyes from “constant and misleading public opinion polls and focus groups that dictate the nature of many of their public policies.”

He acknowledged, however, that voters must be brought on board. “In the final analysis, successful leaders do not impose unpopular ideas on the public, successful leaders make unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation,” he said.

“This requires a compelling and convincing argument, one made from conviction and combined with the will, the skill, and the disciplined commitment to make that argument over, and over, and over again.”

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