Hebert: Friends mix with foes in politics

This could be awkward.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney is one of Justin Trudeau’s most effective allies on the Canada-U.S. trade front. And preserving NAFTA, or as much of it as possible, is the most significant item on the federal government’s mid-mandate plate.

Now Mulroney’s daughter, Caroline, is exploring the possibility of running for the leadership of the Ontario Tories. And that bid, if successful, would see her take on Trudeau’s closest provincial ally in the June provincial election. The web of politics is a tangled one.

On Tuesday, Brian Mulroney was on Capitol Hill, offering a U.S. Senate committee a spirited defence of the North American trade arrangements negotiated on his watch. The former Tory prime minister has a leading role in the lobbying offensive Trudeau has launched to mobilize support for NAFTA among American movers and shakers.

When it comes to Canada, the attention span of the American political elites has traditionally been short. Given all that has been happening in the White House, it has not always been easy for Canada to keep the eyes of its American allies on the NAFTA ball.

Second to Trudeau, Mulroney is a rare Canadian magnet for attention. His network of contacts on and off Capitol Hill extends beyond the reach of the prime minister. Over on this side of the border, his role in Trudeau’s pro-NAFTA coalition has gone some way to co-opt the Conservative official opposition into aligning itself behind the Liberals.

If only to keep his fractious troops united, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer can ill afford to let a lot of light shine between his party and Mulroney on trade. In the current Canada-U.S. circumstances, the same is no less true of Trudeau.

Even as Mulroney was doing the Washington rounds, his eldest daughter, Caroline, was lining up support for a very different cause.

Until ex-Ontario Tory leader Patrick Brown’s exit from the scene, she was a star candidate about to run for a GTA seat for the very first time. Now she is contemplating a bid for the provincial leadership and, subsequently, the premier’s office.

Many Conservatives have only seen Caroline Mulroney in action at last year’s federal Conservative party leadership vote gathering and then only as co-master of ceremonies. It may have been a speaking role but it was not one that lent itself to the laying out of a political vision.

But those who are cheering her on note that the 43-year-old mother of four was raised in a political environment, has career experience as a lawyer and is of the right gender for a party that has just lost a male leader and a male president to allegations of sexual misconduct.

She also enjoys instant name recognition, a feature that could be precious for a party facing an imminent post-leadership election campaign. This she has in common with Trudeau and there is no shortage of Conservatives pointing out that what worked magic for the federal Liberals, might well do the same for the Ontario Tories. (A notable difference is that Trudeau was twice elected MP before he became leader and then had a couple of years to fine-tune his first campaign.)

One could argue that the Mulroney name comes with more baggage than that of the prime minister. But over the past few months it has mostly been associated with NAFTA, and in Conservative circles the tripartite trade deal is a rare consensual legacy item of Mulroney’s past governments.

As prime minister, Trudeau could almost certainly forge a productive relationship with an Ontario premier with strong roots on the progressive side of the conservative movement and some similar childhood experiences to boot.

His father certainly got along famously with Tory premier William Davis.

But as federal Liberal leader he presides over a political family with strong ties to the province’s incumbent government. It is not by accident that some have dubbed Trudeau’s federal government Queen’s Park on the Rideau.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has been a key ally of Trudeau’s from the time he was considered a long shot to become prime minister. The polls show she will need all the help she can get to lead her Liberals to re-election in June. Trudeau would normally be only too willing to offer whatever assistance he can. But now that could be somewhat conditional on who ends up leading the Ontario Tories.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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