Cover Story

The once and future Joe

Robert Lewis October 30 1978
Cover Story

The once and future Joe

Robert Lewis October 30 1978

Long before last week’s byelections, Conservative leader Joe Clark assembled his Toronto candidates at a private meeting designed to clarify his policy stands for the quizzical troops. But Clark stumbled badly through his first two responses and, from the back of the room in his dulcet broadcaster’s voice, Eglinton Tory Rob Parker announced: “Us—two, Clark—nothing.” Clark rebounded with three authoritative answers, then, after a round of applause, he clucked: “And I’m still the quarterback.”

Of that there are few doubts in Conservative circles any more. Joe Who? has, at last, asserted his leadership over a Clark party. The essential reason is that in the 15 byelections Clark won big and his party scored a stunning triumph.* Over-all the PCs won 10 races, wiped the Liberals out in Ontario, eliminated the last Grit seat in Manitoba and piled up massive new vote majorities everywhere except in Quebec. The Liberals won a measly two seats, both in their Fortress Quebec. In the same week that provincial Liberals were wiped out in Saskatchewan, federal party workers wondered darkly if they were presiding over the death of a national party.

*New standings' Liberals 136, PCs 97, NDP 17, Créditistes 9, Independents 5.

The New Democrats under Ed Broadbent, the only leader to advocate more government spending, scored an important breakthrough in Newfoundland where lawyer Fonse Faour became the island’s, first-ever federal or provincial NDPer. In Toronto’s downtown Broadview, another promising newcomer, lawyer Bob Rae, withstood a stiff Tory challenge, and the party placed a promising second in Ottawa and Hamilton.

In Ontario and British Columbia, where the next election will be decided, the byelections served as the most authoritative poll of all — and signalled a possible Clark majority government next time around. In Burnaby-Richmond-Delta, won by PC Tom Siddon, the Liberals came third with an embarrassing 10 per cent of the vote. In the five Ontario races the PCs took 55 per cent of the vote (38 per cent in the 1974 election), compared to 25 for the Liberals (45 in 1974) and 19 for the NDP (17).

Despite a strong slate of candidates, the Liberals were drowned in Ontario at a time when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau desperately needs senior anglo figures. In Ottawa, veteran and former minister Bryce Mackasey came third. In Toronto, a gigantic blue tide swept aside the likes of author Doris Anderson, former municipal heavies Paul Cosgrove and Art Eggleton and, most tellingly, John Evans, who was to have become Mr. Ontario Liberal (see box, page 24).

For the PCs, on the other hand, ranks were bolstered by a youthful, more dynamic breed of achievers. Parker, for example, flew to Parliament Hill the day after he was elected to look for an office. The two Tory stars, former Toronto mayor David Crombie and economist Robert (Bob for the byelections) de Cotret, won handily. After taking their seats in the Commons this week, both men will be deployed as prime party messengers. De Cotret, in particular, strengthens the party image on economic issues, although his arrival poses Clark with a dilemma in selecting a prospective finance minister if the PCs form a government (see box on page 22).

“It was worse than we expected,” moaned one Liberal campaign strategist. With typical stoicism the party establishment, after meetings in Ottawa, turned aside suggestions of the obvious—that a major cause of the rout was Pierre Trudeau’s style and record. “The Yankees,” campaign co-chairman Keith Davey bravely recalled, “were 14 games behind in July—and they won the World Series. He’s still the best campaigner.” Added another party insider: “The consensus of the campaign committee is to wait and see. Nobody’s going to stick the knife in. There are a couple of important dates coming up.”

Two meetings this fall between Trudeau and provincial premiers, to be precise. The first one next week will throw Trudeau amidst a restive, increasingly Tory group of provincial leaders who oppose his plans for changing the constitution. The second, at the end of November, will deal with the economy. At both sessions Trudeau will have to prove to the country, and more importantly to himself, that he still has the moral authority to run a troubled nation. If he fails, as the bleak evidence suggests he might, Trudeau could decide to retire and call a snap leadership convention this winter. But close associates who talk to Trudeau daily point to his passion for debating the Quebec referendum, expected next year, and are convinced he will stay on—and fight hard.

Conservative strategists are not writing Trudeau off, perhaps because they live in dread, as one puts it, “that we might wake the sleeping giant”—Bay Street’s irrepressible John Turner. “Grits don’t go down easily,” observes Clark staff chief Bill Neville, a onetime Liberal aide, “and Trudeau won’t go down easily. Sure, he’s their problem, but he’s also their asset.”

The same point was made, at least indirectly, in a Conservative strategy paper prepared for the byelections: “We must make it implicitly clear that because these byelections cannot result in a change of government, they are not the final or ultimate test of Joe Clark’s or Pierre Trudeau’s leadership. While Clark will be involved in the byelections, his leadership is not reflected in the results. His involvement in the byelections would therefore be that of a prime minister-in-waiting while the local candidates campaign.”

But what kind of prime minister? Increasingly, as Trudeau’s peril increases, Canadians will want to hear more from Clark about his policies and his goals. In the sense that it is important subliminally, they will want to examine his style and his tilt. There is a sense infusing Ottawa that an epic transfer of power is under way: it lingers after hours around the photocopy machines in the prime minister’s office where résumés are secretly run off. But the question remains, a transfer to what—and with what consequences?

For Clark it has been a long, lonely march from the leadership convention in February, 1976, when he had the support of only two MPs at the start, and a margin of only 65 votes at the end. Canadians, he said then, “don’t want to know what we’re against, they want to know what we are for.” The byelections served Clark as a forum for delivering on that pledge—and for addressing the disturbing findings in his private polls that people thought he was “fuzzy” on issues. What has emerged, apart from specific planks on the economy, is an f-stop removed from a sharp contrast to Pierre Trudeau.

Broadly, the burden of Joe Clark’s message is that the heady days of strong central direction and mystery on the Rideau are over. He has borrowed a page from Jimmy Carter’s play book—along with zero-based budgeting—and mounted a thinly veiled anti-Ottawa campaign. He wants to boost the clout of the premiers and the private sector and favors volunteerism over interventionism. He wants to dismantle Pierre Trudeau’s elaborate machinery of consensus governing and to open up the process.

In an unsettling way, Clark is moving expectations down from the mountaintop, almost as if by diminishing and de-mystifying an office, he can take it by stealth.

“I’m not the greatest,” Clark once told Maclean’s, and his approach to high office has been a reflection. Methodically, Clark has built up trust in his caucus by sharing his burden. At a byelection-night party in his office, Clark left specific orders with his staff that “I don’t want to be closeted away.” Accordingly, while Trudeau watched the returns alone at 24 Sussex Drive, Clark was surrounded by MPs, staffers and reporters who littered his office with cigarette ashes and empty glasses. Such was the din that Clark placed calls to his candidates from an aide’s office—the same room Clark had used when he had been a speech writer for Robert Stanfield a decade ago.

In the same manner, Clark has been out among the people. Since his election as leader he has logged a body-numbing 200,000 jet miles, hitting the talk shows, glad-handing on street corners and, most important of all, cultivating a network of cronies from his days as a student PC president. From all the roaming has come a still-developing notion of what the country is about (see interview) and increased poise on the public stage.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, Clark has assigned retiring Regina MP Jim Balfour the task of preparing a blueprint for taking over the prime ministership. Balfour is working closely with Clark’s longtime personal friend from university days, David Jenkins, a vice-president in Edmonton with Nu-West Development. They have established groups across the country to scout talent for a Clark government.

“It’s not to establish a blueprint for a wholesale cleanout of the public service,” warns Balfour in an attempt to placate the mandarinate with which Clark would have to work. In an interview with Maclean's, Clark added: “I will be doing the great part of my governing with the existing public service. It will be important to have a quite substantial and maybe a complete rotation of deputy ministers. I want to take a hard look at bringing up some people who are there and I want to bring in some people from the outside into senior positions. I am very worried about the sense of mutual hostility that’s grown up between the private and public sectors. We’ll have an opportunity as a new government to lance that.”

Although little seen by the public, Clark knows that it is the most senior of bureaucrats—the clerk of the Privy Council—who has vital day-to-day authority over the public service. The current incumbent, Michael Pitfield, surely would not serve a Clark administration because of close ties to Pierre Trudeau. Already the Tories are privately scouting possible replacements. The in-house favorite appears to be Marcel Masse, currently deputy secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations, and past chairman of the cabinet secretariat under Richard Hatfield in New Brunswick. Other names from outside Ottawa on the short list: Derek Bedson, for 20 years the Manitoba cabinet secretary; Graham Scott, an old Clark pal who is associate secretary of the cabinet in Ontario Premier Davis’ office; and Ian Macdonald, the president of York University and former deputy treasurer in Ontario who drew up a government-takeover contingency plan for Robert Stanfield in 1974.

Clark wants to restructure the machinery of government by removing power from the Privy Council office and giving it to ministers. He leans toward the British system of an inner cabinet numbering about 15, and a second level of ministers who, while they would not attend the weekly meeting, would be responsible for specific parts of sprawling departments like Transport, Industry, Trade and Commerce and Agriculture.

Clark’s major hurdle—in the next few months, then, presuming he is leading a government—is the party’s chronic weakness in Quebec. In the byelections PCs not only lost St. Hyacinthe, a seat they had held for 21 years, but their share of the Quebec popular vote increased by a scant one per cent. One of the reasons is that with only two Quebec MPs, and only a handful of others who can speak French, the Tories are virtually shut out of the French television news shows.

Clark is hoping that De Cotret, whose mother tongue is French, will raise the party profile on economic issues. But nothing will beat having more Quebec MPs. Clark is less convincing about the larger challenge—reversing the image of the Liberal party in Quebec as the only real home for francophones. “There is an attempt,” Clark says, “to caricature the Conservative party as a party of the English—not simply that we represent English Canada, but that we’re against French Canada.”

With the Conservatives, however, it is not always myth. At a meeting of the British Columbia PCs before the byelections, delegates voted against the B.C. government policy of offering French-language schooling where numbers warrant. Clark spoke at that meeting, yet he was unaware of the vote, which had a negative impact in Quebec. Not that he would have done anything to still the debate. “I’m not going to go around policing the party,” he says. “The party knows that I support the Official Languages Act, that it’s going to be a basic part of what we do.”

Apart from hammering at Tory weaknesses in Quebec as the referendum approaches, the Liberals are trying to set a trap for Clark on his plan to hand more power to the provinces. Trudeau asserts that Clark will give away the store to the premiers and demands, “Who will speak for Canada?” Clark responds: “My style is different from his. It is not to go out and encourage confrontations. I’m going to surrender those parts of the store that should never have been part of the federal store. He likes the drama of it all. I’m inclined to sacrifice some of the drama to get agreement on things. I don’t accept his definition that Ontario and Alberta are inevitably going to disagree. They start out with different interests, but politics is the business of reconciling interests.”

And, he might add, of standing up to scrutiny—a challenge on which Clark so far has had an indifferent record. When Maclean's correspondent Ian Urquhart recently pressed Clark on how his mortgage-interest deduction plan would work, especially if the provinces objected, there came forth a reply striking only for its imprecisions: “The calculus that we issue, coming to a $1.6-billion total-cost figure after four years of operation, is based upon federal tax. That would be the cost to the federal treasury. We would only be rebating to the provinces, to use your term, something that we—an effect upon taxation that would—an effect upon their—I’m trying to put this clearly . . .” Clark gave up and later instructed an aide to explain the scheme.

Clark, who has not had a full-scale Ottawa press conference in almost two years, has an abiding suspicion of a few reporters who he believes are “against” him. At a federal-provincial conference last year, Clark eyed one CBC correspondent taping a report and whispered to seat-mate Flora MacDonald: “There’s a Grit.”

On the basis of the record to date, Clark also has left the impression that he runs when the going is toughest. When renegade Alberta MP Stan Schumacher refused to step aside for Clark, who wanted to run in Bow River riding, it was the leader who had to find another constituency. When a Tory candidate in Quebec byelections last year made anti-Semitic remarks, Clark did not reprimand him.

For now, however, these are only minor clues to the style of prime ministry Clark would offer. As he likes to say, an opposition can only speak, it cannot act. In the public mind, except in Quebec, what seems to matter most is that the Tory leader is on the march. These days, offering a change to a discredited government seems to be enough.