Another View

Turn back the clock with Joe Clark

Charles Gordon July 13 1998
Another View

Turn back the clock with Joe Clark

Charles Gordon July 13 1998

Turn back the clock with Joe Clark

Another View

Charles Gordon

The other day they opened up something called the Walk of Fame in Toronto. There had been a hope, vainly cherished by some people, that Canada could be one of the few countries of the world without a Walk of Fame in it. But you can’t have everything, or not have everything, these days. We have a Walk of Fame just like the Americans do, and people can get off the tour bus and look at it.

The long-held suspicion that we are not a Walk of Fame kind of place is heightened when it is learned that the next leader of the Progressive Conservative party could be Joe Clark, not a Walk of Fame kind of guy. His style has a quality of anti-charisma, yet we elected him our prime minister in 1979. There is a hope among members of an older political generation that his comeback signals a shift to better, and older, political days.

For all of us, there is a tendency to think that the political culture we grew up with is the real and lasting one, and all shifts from it are temporary deviations. Thus, for some Canadians it seems only right that Joe Clark would re-enter the political scene. It is a signal that we are returning to the normal and proper way of doing things.

That normal way would consist of a threeplus party system with the contenders grouped around the centre. Each party would choose a leader acceptable to the entire range of opinion in the party, if only as a compromise—or especially as a compromise. From time to time, fringe movements would spring up and be reflected momentarily in Parliament, before either dying or becoming absorbed by the other parties.

That system, the system with which Joe Clark grew up, lasted until 1993, when Reform and the Bloc Québécois exploded out of the smoking ruins of the Conservative party. What we have now is an ideologically and regionally based fiveparty system. It is probably not grouped around the centre, the centre being rather difficult to locate. If one exists, you can be sure the Liberals have located it, and if the Liberals seem oriented somewhat to the right, that’s probably where the centre is.

Now, there are Canadians coming of age politically under today’s setup who think it is natural and just fine. This new breed would comprise the people in the Bloc, of course, as well as the Reform party and the rightward edges of the Conservative party. The splintering of the system both reflects the growing power of the right and gives it more power. (For the left, it is one of political life’s sad little ironies: New Democrats used to insist that a more ideologically based politics would bring power to them.)

Into this hostile landscape rides Joe Clark. His goal is to return the Conservative party to the centre, make it a broadly based coalition of regions and ideas and, by the way, cause Reform to

His return could mean a revival of the good old days when Canada had an enviable social system and a civil lifestyle

become irrelevant and disappear and the Bloc to wither and die. Under Clark, the Conservative party was in the centre, reaching out both to Quebec and to its own more free-enterprising wing. Clark’s government failed because of tactical blunders rather than the unpopularity of its ideas. That was shown by the success, only four years later, of Brian Mulroney, who took essentially the same ideas and won two elections with them. When he fell massively out of favor, his coalition splintered, the Quebec wing leaving to form the Bloc, western supporters running into the arms of Reform and a tiny little group of moderates remaining as the Tory party.

That tiny group, running under Jean Charest, didn’t make much of a dent in last year’s federal election, but some argue that its failure lay in an unwise attempt to attract rightwing votes and that the party has a bright future if it can find a way to recapture its moderate qualities. With voters disenchanted with the stodginess of the Liberals and bored with the antics of Reform, a Progressive Conservative party that returns to the ideas of Clark, Stanfield and even Diefenbaker stands a chance to recapture a position of strength in the political system. Clark’s further hope is that, as a westerner, he can bring back some Reform supporters whose beef with the Tory party was more regional than ideological.

With a Progressive Conservative resurgence would come a resumption of what many Canadians see as the traditional order of things, and a return to the good old days. That, of course, is not a unanimous opinion. Where those of Joe Clark’s generation see a period of consensus and prosperity, those of a newer political generation are convinced that the old system is responsible for the debt and deficits that the new breed of politicians have been working so painfully to overcome, the pain not being theirs but ours.

Whatever political party they control, the members of the new breed will continue that work, even if it means further attacks on social programs. The question is whether they see the Conservative party as the best battleground upon which to fight. The other possibility is that the new breed will decide the Conservative party is not worth fighting for and turn their attentions to Reform or some new vehicle for uniting the right.

Those of the older political culture clearly do consider the Conservative party relevant. It exemplifies, in their minds, a period in which Canada developed an enviable social system, a civil lifestyle and great wealth, relative to most of the world. It is a period in which no one could imagine the existence of the Bloc Québécois or a Reform party, nor the need for either.

Times, clearly, have changed. It would not be a disaster to see them change back and it may take a man of very little fame to make it happen.