The new PM: no ordinary Joe

Robert Lewis June 4 1979

The new PM: no ordinary Joe

Robert Lewis June 4 1979

The new PM: no ordinary Joe


Robert Lewis

Beneath the 100-foot whispering pines overlooking emerald Lac Beauvert at Jasper Park Lodge, two tall men, looking slightly out of character in casual clothes, strained to strike a note of informality. The mission at hand was nothing less than the transfer of power to a Conservative government after 16 uninterrupted years of Liberal reign. And the banter of the principals did not obscure the dimension of the change.

There was Michael Pitfield, the nation’s top civil servant, an intimate of Pierre Trudeau and the pinstripe symbol of systems and eastern hegemony on the banks of the Rideau. Coming down the path to greet him in designer blue jeans was Joe Clark, prime minister-elect, inquisitor of bureaucracy, a long-time Pitfield critic and the first Canadian leader born in the West. By Clark’s choice of venue, Pitfield had come to the edge of the Conservative leader’s vast Alberta constituency to hand over the keys of the transition. “Hi, Michael,” said Clark jauntily. “I appreciate your coming out.”

For more than two hours, joined by Clark’s chief of staff, Bill Neville, the three men talked in a log cabin, called Viewpoint, a political era removed from the salons of Montreal, Rosedale and Rockcliffe Park. The talk turned around the thick volumes that Pitfield carried, copies of which filled seven Carson double-lock cases and several cardboard boxes. In all, Procedures and Process for a Change of Government filled more than 500 pages and covered the issues facing Clark in the next six months— the referendum in Quebec, inflation, constitutional reform, the summit of leading industrial nations in Tokyo June 25, the Commonwealth conference in August.

For levity, there was even a copy of a 400-year-old treatise on governing in Britain and a cartoon of two bureaucrats standing beside a mountain of transition documents, one of them proclaiming, “Once he’s read this, he won’t want the job.”

For Clark, who prefers meetings to paper, the days of the slick campaign slogan and the slashing attack had

come to an abrupt end. Now, he faced problems as daunting as the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies outside Viewpoint: holding a country together with no base in Quebec, facing a minority Parliament in the fall, delivering on costly campaign promises, forming a cabinet, recruiting a staff, reorganizing the bureaucracy and briefing himself on governing a land divided by parties on linguistic lines. After 10 hours of sleep during his first night in Jasper, Clark plunged into eight uninterrupted hours of meetings.

The tension was evident in the exhausted faces of Clark’s staff, eyes shaded in black circles of fatigue after the 57-day campaign. It seemed almost anticlimactic and a lot more difficult than toppling a government. Charles Clark paced the manicured lawns, his brow creased with concern about his son’s new burdens, unable to rest or unwind.

Back in Ottawa, despite tears and unemployment uncertainties, there was a sense of relief among Liberals—even a note of grim determination. The honest ones had been saying for months that they probably didn’t deserve to win and, now, the final results served as a kind of purification rite. There was some bitterness at the passing of the last Liberal government in the land. But many ministers actually had hoped to be relieved

of the burdens of office before the scheduled June 4 swearing in of Clark’s government.*

Pierre Trudeau volunteered a government JetStar to fly Clark home at the weekend (the offer was declined) and invited Maureen McTeer to tour 24 Sussex Drive when the Clark family returns to Ottawa this week. At week’s end, Trudeau called Clark in Jasper to

*Buoyed by the Conservative tide, Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford late last week announced a provincial election for June 18, with most pundits predicting a substantial majority for the newly named Tory leader.


arrange a meeting in the capital. They agreed that until Stornoway, the home of the opposition leader, is refurbished, Trudeau will stay at the prime ministerial retreat on Harrington Lake. Just how long Trudeau remains as Liberal leader is a matter of doubt, but he seems secure at least until the referendum (see story page 33). As a sign of short-term intent, Trudeau quietly confirmed Nova Scotia’s parliamentary veteran, Allan MacEachen, as Liberal House leader. In fact, in Liberal ranks, there seemed to be a sense of happy anticipation about attacking Tories instead of defending the record.

Overshadowing the high drama of all those events, however, was a looming uncertainty about how the outcome of the vote will affect the future of French-English relations in the country and, by extension, the very existence of the nation itself. In much of English Canada, the prospect of a political future dominated by a government elected primarily by non-Quebec voters and an opposition party whose only real remaining base is inside Quebec was an unsettling preoccupation.

But the new leader was quick in his attempts to assuage such fears, reiterating campaign pledges to find ways of appointing “contemporary Quebeckers” to his inner circle. Within the province itself, such luminaries as Liberal leader Claude Ryan argued that the results were anything but a disaster. Quebeckers, said Ryan, had clearly and over-

whelmingly voted for Trudeau and his bilingual, bicultural brand of federalism and had, in the process, repudiated the indépendantiste stance of Premier René Lévesque. The premier, on the other hand, contended that English Canadians, by voting Conservative, had repudiated both a “native son” of Quebec and policies designed to accommodate the province within Confederation. But it was clear that the polarization of support for the two major parties had added a potentially dangerous twist to the ever-present national unity issue and a great deal depended on the sensitivity with which a Clark government approached the delicate dilemma.

It will be several months before even the opposition gets a handle on the tone of the new administration. But it is clear that it could be quite unlike the government that went down—if Clark manages to get a prompt and steady grip on the levers of power. He and his people start out with an abiding distrust of Ottawa’s ability to run the affairs of men and women. They believe, in the words of Clark’s campaign rhetoric, that “governments don’t build countries, people build countries,” and that the Trudeaucrats have been “governing against the nature of the nation.”

What that apparently represented was the wishes of a new coalition detected in exhaustive party surveys of the electorate. It was right-of-centre, composed of suburbanites, entrepreneurs, young executives and others who have, despite newfound affluence, felt

excluded from the national government. In the words of a campaign slogan, pulled from the computer reading of the mood, they believed it was “time for a change.”

Up from those ranks came the bit players and foot soldiers who formed an army of volunteers. They were people such as Brad Chapman, a wealthy realtor from Calgary, who served as campaign wagon master with smiling efficiency and who personified Clark’s repeated theme of Canada as a nation of builders. One day Chapman sat down and designed an aluminum mast for the Canadian flag hoisted out the cockpit window of Clark’s campaign jet. And there were others like him—for example, fund raiser Irving Gerstein, head of Peoples Jewellers, who insists that new company recruits, including MBAs, start out behind store counters to find what people want.

The people who actually called the shots—Clark, campaign manager

Lowell Murray and Neville—were more hard-edged pragmatists than ideologues. Unlike the Robert Stanfield team, which grudgingly respected Trudeau, Clark and his insiders openly despised their opponent. That showed up in the negative ad campaign they ordered from a Quebec firm to slam Trudeau in his home province as an economic criminal. Around Tory headquarters, they chuckled that if Murray had his way he would have run pictures of a boot kicking a groin, urging voters to do the same on May 22.

In sum, the Clark people share a suspicion of planners and flow charts, of people with prescriptions and PhDs. In Penticton, B.C., where Clark heard himself introduced as an economic medicine man—“Dr. Joe Clark”—adviser Jim Gillies playfully ribbed his leader when he whispered: “That’s the ultimate insult, Joe.” In Toronto, candidate Ron Ritchie sought to turn Clark’s ordinary image to an asset when he proclaimed in an introduction: “Being prime minister of Canada is a joe job—and here is the Joe they want.”

In fact, as the campaign indicated, it was not so much what people were for as what they were against that made the difference. As the Edmonton Journal neatly summed it up, “Mr. Clark won less because Canadians chose him than because Canadians rejected Pierre Trudeau.”

Unhappily for Clark, the only place it didn’t happen was in Quebec where Trudeau won 67 of the 75 seats and held the Créditistes to only six and Clark to two. Interestingly, it was the only province where the Liberals stressed their “strong” team in Ottawa. Elsewhere, Trudeau flew solo and the results added up to a scant 47 seats. Thirteen ministers were defeated, almost as if, in the words of one Liberal aide, voters were blaming them for their association with Trudeau. It almost seemed, he added,

“that the closer to the sun you had been, the greater the likelihood you would lose. All the backbenchers won in Toronto; all the ministers lost.”

Trudeau closed the campaign in peak form, winning the television debate and drawing his most responsive crowds. But the Clark people knew from their surveys that it wasn’t enough and they virtually stopped campaigning in the closing days as they coasted through the interior of B.C. and staged their only rally of the election in Vancouver.

Trudeau successfully developed three main issues: energy, strong central government and Joe Clark’s inability to run the country. But he committed major blunders by attacking popular premiers, shouting at hecklers and, in a celebrated meal with two reporters, musing about staying in office with fewer seats than the Conservatives.

The Tories, in contrast, kept Clark tightly controlled, right down to providing a portable podium covered in an imitation veneer which was trundled from stop to stop. The Conservatives ran into their heaviest seas over the perception that they would not let Clark face the other leaders in a TV debate. After heavy criticism, they finally agreed— and the decision probably denied Clark

a majority. If any one move secured the minority, it was Clark’s mortgage deduction proposal, which lit up the faces of residential voters like golden arches after dark. It was more than an appeal to self-interest; the Tories, aware that Clark could not beat Trudeau on charisma, correctly reckoned that the policy plank would serve as the major positive talking point of Clark’s campaign.

Another factor that held back the Tories was the strong showing of the NDP in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where Ed Broadbent won 17 of his 26 seats. For the NDP, the major disappointment, despite support from big labor, was the party’s failure to pick up seats in industrial Ontario. More generally, the NDP fell short of its alltime high of 31 seats, although it had never been better prepared for an election (see story page 32).

Whether Clark can now govern as though he had a majority—in the way he claims he intends to—will become clear after he meets with Broadbent this week. It is not likely that Broadbent would risk the wrath of voters by forcing an early election. Besides, says a key Clark adviser, “we could throw them some things they can support” such as reform of policies on release of government information, perhaps even a change in Petro-Canada that would be acceptable.

The Petrocan issue is one on which the two leaders are at odds. Clark vows to proceed immediately with his scheme to sell off the state-owned energy company, part of his policy of “privatizing” government bodies. Broadbent is firmly on record as opposing the move. Clark could turn to the Créditistes for support*: Fabien Roy suggests he is ready to scuttle the agency because he wants to see natural resources “under absolute provincial jurisdiction.”

The Petrocan issue is one of many examples of the dilemmas facing Clark in implementing his lengthy list of campaign promises (see box page 26). He is committed, for example, to his costly mortgage scheme and to personal tax cuts in a budget this fall. But with so many industries working flat out—rubber, plastics, textiles and transportation equipment at 100-per-centcapacity, clothing at 96.5, paper at 94.2—the combination of tax cuts and new spending could stimulate inflation, instead of promised economic activity, and create even larger deficits.

Having labelled Trudeau “the prince of broken promises,” Clark will be hard pressed to back away from his commit-

*Two judicial recounts were planned. In Halifax, PC George Cooper won by 2k votes; in Vancouver Liberal Art Phillips beat PC Pat Carney by 100 votes. If both winners are upheld, the standings in the new House will be: PCs 135, Liberals 115, NDP 26, Créditistes 6.

ments along his announced road to a balanced budget. One possibility is that the new government might do a snap accounting of the books and declare that the situation is worse than expected, thus delaying major spending or the tax cut, which would cost the treasury $2 billion a year.

Another challenge facing Clark is in the arcane matter of cabinet and civil service reform, which will be crucial if he is to place his stamp on the lumbering machinery of government. In Jasper last week, for example, there were long debates about a proposal from three management consultants that Clark keep the Trudeau cabinet structure in place. The new leader, however, wants to select a smallish inner cabinet, delegating other responsibilities to junior ministers. Given the tradition of regional ministers in Canadian government, Clark and his transition team worried about the reaction, say, from

New Brunswick if the only minister ended up in the second rank. Another quandary of the transition team was the plan to wrest control of government from the ‘ bureaucrats (see story page 31).

Clark’s greatest problem could arise if, having won a mandate for change, his government becomes mired in conflicting advice and is overtaken by the status quo. As a consensus-style leader, he could afford the luxury of time to make decisions. The patience allowed Clark to unite his party as it had not been in more than a decade. In government, however, the virtue of collegiality, if used to excess, can turn into a deadly sin—as it did for Trudeau.

The key will be the people whom

Clark gathers close in a crunch. On the record so far, there will be a variety of sources in addition to his inner cabinet:

The staff: The day-to-day confidant will be Neville, a tireless political animal with government experience as a Liberal aide. Chief-of-staff Neville posesses the political savvy and professional ruthlessness to make the trains run on time. His major weakness, as evidenced by Clark’s weak staff in opposition, is that he tries to do everything by himself.

The wise men: The first among equals for the election was campaign manager Murray. Like Clark, he is a veteran of Davie Fulton’s leadership campaign in 1967 and Robert Stanfield’s opposition office. As an old Clark roommate, Murray has the most frank relationship with Clark, whether advising on the role to be played by Maureen McTeer (limited) or urging a major foreign policy shift (moving the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv). Murray, however, is not planning an official role in Clark’s administration, although he will be available for consultations in the crunch. Other “wise men” are Stanfield, former Tory campaign manager Finlay MacDonald of Halifax, Malcolm Wickson of British Columbia and Tory Premiers Hatfield, Davis and Lyon.

Cronies: The transition team meeting at Jasper was a good indication of the

way Clark prefers to tap into different networks. Apart from Neville, former MP Jim Balfour and close adviser Jim Gillies, the members are little known to the public. Balfour’s partners were Edmonton developer David Jenkins, a former classmate of Clark’s, and Jean Bazin, a Montreal lawyer who worked with Clark, also on Fulton’s leadership campaign. The other members were Montreal lawyer Michel Cogger, another Fulton veteran, who is on the party’s national executive, and three P.S. Ross consultants who volunteered their services.

As a self-styled “organizer” in the back rooms of the Conservative party, Clark has literally spent his life accumulating contacts, some of whom, such as George Cooper in Halifax and Jim Hawkes in Calgary, were elected last week. From his constant travels since he was elected leader more than three years ago, Clark legitimately can assert that he has “a feel for the country Canada.”

Whether that is enough to equip him for the severe challenges ahead is another matter. On the Quebec issue, the legerdemain of using the Senate to establish ministers from Quebec is hardly a substitute for an electoral base in the province. On economic matters Clark will need extensive briefing. In foreign policy his grasp is so far unproven, although by August he will have to pro-

duce a Canadian policy on recognition of the new government in ZimbabweRhodesia.

For a man with so many problems, Clark looked remarkably confident and at ease in Jasper. The campaign tremble of the hands and the nervous titter had disappeared. During a break, he joked archly with a tourist from Australia that if the visitor stayed on long

enough, he “might learn to speak English.”

One intimate explained the confidence simply: “He’s worked an awful long time for this.” Although it sounds like cornball on the stump, surrounded by the sturdy members of the Clark and McTeer families, Clark’s talk about roots and small towns and individualism now seemed genuine. The roam-

ing of the land since the leadership appears to have given him a confidence about the task at hand. As he walked toward Viewpoint cabin with Pitfield, Clark must have been struck by an obvious contrast. Coming to Jasper, Pitfield proffered, was “a welcome excuse. It’s the first time I’ve been outside of Ottawa in a year.”