Brian Mulroney joked about the GST and praised Sir John A. Macdonald as the greatest prime minister. Kim Campbell suggested one man and one woman should represent each riding. And John Turner railed against party discipline, taking a not-so-subtle swipe at Canada's current leader.
The three former prime ministers, along with two others, Joe Clark and Paul Martin, struck both a humorous and serious tone Thursday night as they gathered in downtown Toronto to be honoured for their public service at the Public Policy Forum's annual Testimonial Dinner and Awards.
Another former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, was also honoured but not in attendance.
"As I look over this great crowd, I have to tell you, I’d love to be prime minister again," Mulroney joked, as the crowd laughed. "The truth is, I miss the adulation."
Mulroney, who led back-to-back Progressive Conservative majority governments from September 1984 to June 1993, also quipped about the controversial GST, saying that when he heard Chrétien campaigning that he was going to "axe the tax, Jesus, I almost voted for [him] myself."
He also joked that the GST wasn’t his idea, but that of his former finance minister Michael Wilson, who sneaked it by him in cabinet.
Clark, who headed a Progressive Conservative minority government from June 1979 to March 1980, said that when he retired from office, he received a call in his Calgary home from a woman looking to speak to “Mr. or Mrs. R T Hon” to talk about telephone privacy provisions to avoid crank calls.
He also remarked that he had planned Thursday night to propose a way to solve all of Canada’s economic problems.
"But I did that in 1979,” he said, to great laughter from the floor, “and you all didn’t seem that interested."
Martin, who led a Liberal minority government between December 2003 and February 2006, had a similar story to Clark's. He said that when he was at an airport in Mexico not long after he stepped down —"a euphemism for having lost the election," he noted — the woman at the airline said she didn't have his reservation.
"She looked down and said, 'Oh, you’re Mr. Right On.' And I said 'Right on baby!'"
Address gender balance, Campbell suggests
But the former leaders also addressed serious issues. Campbell, who as a Progressive Conservative became Canada's first female prime minister and who served from June to November 1993, repeated a proposal she has made in the past to address gender balance in politics.
Every constituency in Canada should become a two-member riding and elect both a man and a woman, Campbell said.
"We would have instant parity. There would be no competition in the party between men and women for the nomination. No need to be nasty," she said.
"It can be done. It would simply … solve the problem," Campbell said to applause.
Turner, meanwhile, focused his speech on the lack of democracy on Parliament Hill.
"There's too much control, I'm afraid, out of the Prime Minister's Office. Too much party discipline. You can't get on question period without the party whip allowing you," he said.
Turner, who served as Liberal prime minister from June to September 1984, also took a stab at the current government, complaining about the proposed omnibus budget bill from the current Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“The budget used to be related to taxation. The current omnibus bill has got about 150 items in it," he said, adding that it "means the members of Parliament can’t deal with it."
Turner urges more free votes in Commons
He added that besides the throne speech and budget, members of Parliament should be free to vote however they see fit, and not be shackled by party unity.
Martin devoted most of his time to aboriginal issues, expressing his sorrow for not having done enough.
“If I have any regrets today, with my political career behind me, the greatest regret is that for aboriginal Canada, too little has changed, too little progress has been made, the unfairness continues," he said.
Clark spoke about the importance of Canada’s role in world affairs, and how building partnerships and respect "is a distinguishing Canadian credential."
Western governments spend too much money on defence and homeland security, instead of investing in achieving co-operation and improving the conditions that give rise to violence, crime and terrorism, he said.
"As power disperses in the world so does the capacity to lead. And in almost every case the most effective leadership will have to be shared," Clark said. "The model now should be 'leadership from beside.' That is highly relevant to Canada and Canadians. It is what we have so often done and it helps make the world more stable."
Mulroney, as the last speaker, described Macdonald, the country's first leader, as “Canada’s greatest prime minister by far.”
Although not stating it outright, Mulroney seemed to suggest parallels between Macdonald's legacy and his own controversial political past.
"Through the years of blistering personal attacks, unremitting and cruel media, allegations of scandal and periods of deep family sorrow, he never looked back, he never whined, he never quit. He was a leader."