BRIAN MULRONEY'S honorable and well-timed resignation as Canada's prime minister on Wednesday may mark the end of the supply-side Thatcher-Reagan era in Canadian politics, much as Bill Clinton's November victory did in the United States. It was the economy in Canada that forced Mr. Mulroney out after 10 years at the head of his party. Three years into a deepening recession he had no new plan for dealing with, Mulroney's departure gives his ruling Conservative Party time to find a viable economic program free from the doubt voters would have if Mulroney introduced it.
Canadians are understandably reluctant to have their affairs viewed in relation to their larger neighbors to the south. Certainly Canadian Conservatives are less skeptical of a government role than their US counterparts - consider Canada's health-care program or the close regulation in Ottawa of Canadian business and industry. But given the sudden burst of government activism in the US - demands for change, facing deficits, talk of taxing and cutting - it is hard not to feel US behavior has influenced th e political climate in Canada.
Mulroney sympathizers feel his departure will show whether it was the prime minister or his policies that were unpopular. But many critics say it was both. A new prime minister must offer a fresh fiscal direction and regain voter trust - a tall order since most of the candidates are also like-minded fiscal conservatives. Canadian Defense Minister Kim Campbell - popular, bilingual, well organized - is the front runner, though Trade Minister Michael Wilson may have more support in Parliament.
For his part, Mulroney should be given credit for a number of ambitious efforts: the successful North American Free Trade Agreement in 1989, deficit reduction discipline, a coalition with Quebec's leaders that changed the liberal politics there, and even his unsuccessful attempts to create a new federal Canada.