Columns

Joe Clark's time of reckoning

Bruce Wallace May 8 2000
Columns

Joe Clark's time of reckoning

Bruce Wallace May 8 2000

Joe Clark's time of reckoning

Columns

Bruce Wallace

No one should be worried if they can’t get their tongues around the words “Prime Minister Long” just yet. Despite all the excited insider chatter that greeted his entry into the Canadian Alliance leadership race last week, it is doubtful whether one in 20 Canadians knows who Tom Long is or what he stands for. All the arguments against him rising to the top still hold. It is terribly difficult to come out of the back-rooms (where everyone is a “political genius”) and onto the slippery ground of electoral politics. Preston Manning has a huge head start in a leadership campaign that will be won on the back of the unglamorous business of signing up new party members and ensuring they show up to vote. Long doesn’t speak French. And there is that small matter of having helped make Brian Mulroney prime minister, hardly a sin but still not the kind of pedigree Long is likely to boast about.

Yet inside Ottawa, his entry opened cracks in a political landscape that seemed locked in permafrost. The tantalizing prospect of upheaval is a good thing if you prefer your politics on the entertaining side; not so good if you are Joe Clark, who has to be overwhelmed by the tumult now swirling around him. Clark had a brutal week by any measure, and his rocky career gives him quite a few to measure it against. FFis party is in full panic; his caucus confused and scared. Quebec MP André Harvey became the third member to quit under Clark (and the most significant—a father figure to many MPs and a veteran of the Mulroney years, he was instrumental in holding the caucus together in the dark days after Jean Charest quit federal politics). The Tories are bleeding organizers to the Long camp, with Ontario Treasurer Ernie Eves, one of the staunchest federal Tories in the Mike Harris government, stunning his friends in the federal party by endorsing Long.

Add to that Clark’s usual waffling, in this case his agonizing public Hamlet routine over whether to seek a seat in Parliament, and the reviews can’t get much worse. Nor the stakes much higher. The Long campaign may be ostensibly about winning the Alliance leadership and ultimately toppling the Liberals from power, but the first order of business is to take aim at Clark and wipe him out. It is an unmistakable attempt to banish his brand of Red Toryism, if not from the land, then at least into the Liberal party. If Long wins, the Tories will be hard-pressed to do anything but sue for peace. Corporate donations that now just trickle in would all but stop, leaving the

party’s $7.4-million debt unserviceable and the pressure to merge irresistible.

Clark’s mission to save the party was always going to be difficult, but he has compounded it with confused and incoherent decisions. Much of what he has done can be charitably described as mysterious. He refused to seek a seat in Parliament, even though the Liberals were and remain prepared to put up only token resistance. He was so determined to court Quebec nationalist votes that he ended up criticizing the Liberals’ popular and measured clarity bill, which sets out Ottawa’s conditions for accepting the results of any future referendum. Tory MPs, whom he never consulted, were appalled.

He also strangely moved sharply to the political left. Clark first welcomed anti-free trade activist David Orchard into the party that gave Canada the free trade deal with the United States. And last January, just as the Liberals were getting creamed over mismanaging public job-creation funds, Clark went out and proposed a $ 15-billion anti-poverty program. Nice idea. Lousy timing. The folly of that leftward lurch seemed to slowly sink in. In recent weeks, with the Alliance’s sails starting to billow with the odd gust of momentum, Clark has tried to crawl back to the centre-right. He latched onto a corporate tax-cut message. And he went to Alberta to defend Premier Ralph Klein’s unpopular bill to sanction some private medical clinics.

Good to be bold. But unfortunately, Clark neglected to prepare his caucus for his endorsement of the Klein experiment and they went predictably ballistic at the prospect of being seen to side with those who would tamper with medicare. So while Harvey has yet to explain why he bolted the caucus (“I had the impression my work was useless,” he told Quebec television), the more relevant question is why the rest stay.

Clark could still catch a break, of course. A Manning victory would brand the Alliance as little more than Reform in sheep’s clothing, which is why the dwindling band of Tories pray daily for that outcome. But the party’s future has never looked so dismal. Clark constantly invokes his party’s long history, arguing that Canadians will never allow something so woven into the national fabric to disappear. But a turbulent world leaves little time for sentiment. A few tears were shed when Eaton’s went under, but people soon wiped them away and moved on. The Tories had better not count on nostalgia to fight Tom Long. History will not save them.