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BUCHOLTZ: Mulroney was first PM to pay much attention to Surrey, White Rock, Delta

Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada, attends a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico relationship, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (File photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /Jacquelyn Martin)

By Frank Bucholtz, columnist

The death last week of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney naturally led to plenty of comments, tributes and even a few cheers, although some people have never forgiven the former PM for policy initiatives like the GST.

He had a more significant impact on this part of Canada — Surrey, Delta and White Rock — than many would think.

Mulroney took over a Progressive Conservative Party in 1983 that had been out of power for 20 years, other than Joe Clark’s brief interregnum in 1979. Conservatives were disillusioned, and westerners in particular were very angry at the Liberal government led by Pierre Trudeau. The Liberals held only two seats in Western Canada from 1980 to 1984, both in Manitoba.

Mulroney took over from Clark in a divisive leadership contest, and had to work hard to smooth things over. It helped that the Liberals were trailing badly in the polls. The whiff of power is very intoxicating in politics.

The South Fraser area was solidly Conservative, but it didn’t have the political heft of today. There were three Conservative MPs — two in Surrey ridings, one of which included North Delta and White Rock, and one representing South Delta and Richmond.

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Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney leaves Parliament Hill Wednesday, June 6, 2012. (File photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Mulroney led the PC party to a record 211 seats in September 1984. Benno Friesen was re-elected as MP for Surrey-North Delta-White Rock and Bob Wenman was re-elected as MP for Fraser Valley West, which included much of Surrey as well as Langley. Both already had 10 years as MPs under their belts. Neither was asked to serve in cabinet.

However, Mulroney knew that Western Canada, including B.C., was anxious to be part of the Ottawa power structure. He appointed numerous MPs from all western provinces to cabinet. Friesen soon became chair of the national PC caucus.

As a reporter and editor, it was obvious to me that Surrey, Delta and White Rock were now on the itinerary of many cabinet ministers. These included Clark (minister of foreign affairs), Michael Wilson (finance) and numerous other heavy-hitters. Under the previous Liberal government, it was extremely rare for a cabinet minister to visit Surrey.

Friesen, who could spot talent easily, probably due to his university professor background, was quick to invite a young unknown MP in his mid-20s from Sherbrooke, Quebec to Surrey to speak. His name was Jean Charest.

Mulroney himself made a very unusual and shortened visit here. In July 1987, he and his wife Mila, and three of their children, came by hovercraft to take a look at the Canadian Open Sandcastle Competition in White Rock. It usually attracted 200,000 people or more.

The plan was for them to stay for an hour. Their security people said they had to call it off early. The Mulroneys saw just two castles and stayed 20 minutes.The throngs of people and fluid nature of the event on the beach made a longer visit impossible.

The 1988 election was fought on the issue of free trade. This was of great significance to B.C. businesses, and there was widespread support for it. Liberal leader John Turner, who visited Surrey during the campaign, called it the “fight of his life.” Turner lost the election, which was the last federal election fought on a national issue, and was also mostly free of personal attacks.

Mulroney’s second term was challenging, as the introduction of the GST was widely disliked by the public. MP Stan Wilbee, who was elected as a PC in the new Delta riding, got an earful from his constituents and publicly mused about leaving the party. Mulroney made a sustained effort to meet with him and hear why Delta residents disliked the new tax so much. This public level of attention to one MP’s concerns was something rarely seen in federal politics.

The GST and two failed constitutional accords (Meech Lake and Charlottetown) doomed both Mulroney and his party. The PCs never amounted to much after that, as the Reform Party took over.

As a prime minister, Mulroney was the first to pay so much attention to this area. That trend continues to this day. All federal leaders make it a point to visit the Surrey area during each election campaign. Perhaps one day, there will even be a cabinet minister from Surrey. Delta’s Carla Qualtrough is in the current Liberal cabinet and has shown that MPs from this area have plenty of talent.

Frank Bucholtz writes every second week for Black Press Media.