February 15, 2001
How now, Joe Clark? - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER -- Two years or so ago, when taking the helm of the once-mighty Progressive Conservatives, the Right Honourable Joe Clark, P.C., C.C. had the daunting task of taking his Tories from obscurity to the lamented relevance it once occupied in the Canadian political landscape. Joe’s ride to his highest level of obscurity took some funny turns. He refused to take a seat in the House of Commons; and when he did, it was not until the embarrassment posed by one Stockwell Day making rise on the federal political scene, on a Ski-Doo no less. Now after a pretty good campaign on his part in the November election, he will take his seat in the Commons with a caucus smaller than was at dissolution.
Joe Clark is a nice guy. Everyone says that, and while I have yet to encounter him on the hustings, my dealing with him via snail mail last year proved the adage that nice guys finish last. In the ‘70s the Tories were led by an admirable fellow named Robert Stanfield. Dalton Camp, the Tory backroom king, and now columnist for the nation’s largest paper, The Toronto Star, led a revolt against Stanfield. It was clear after 3 campaigns against Pierre Trudeau, the Tories needed a fresh face rather than a fumbler as was Stanfield. (In deference to the Right Honourable Bob Stanfield, whom Barbara Yaffe recently informed me is still alive on his beloved New Brunswick -- he was a man that had the balls to propose wage and price controls in 1974, while Trudeau claimed otherwise -- Marjorie Nichols among others had considered him the finest Prime Minister we never had.)
So in 1976 there was a convention and the Tories saw Stanfield exit and Joe Clark surprise the nation, as he became leader. He was yet to reach the age of 40 and he was already Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. He faced Pierre Trudeau and for the first time in 11 years, he defeated him winning the Tories a minority government. Much has been said of the Clark administration, but from the beginning it was set to fail. The majority, which should have been the Tories, ended up a minority. Perhaps it was lackluster campaigning -- whatever, it would forever be Joe’s fault. His finance minister was Newfoundland’s own, John Crosbie. They dropped a budget that truly upset the fragile Parliament. Some of his own members were away and when it came time to vote, the government fell. After 9 months, Joe Clark’s administration would forever be a mere interregnum in Pierre Trudeau’s 16 years in public life.
So Joe was out of government and in 1983, the Tories decided there be must be a replacement. The man? Brian Mulroney. Trudeau retires and the election of 1984 sees the massive Tory government. Joe Clark is made a minister in the Mulroney cabinet, topping a career with a stint as the architect of the failed Charlottetown Accord. He retires in 1993 like Brian Mulroney, except he keeps a higher profile. Jean Charest is wooed from the Tory leadership and Joe decides to step back in 1998. It wasn’t until this summer that Joe Clark ran for a Commons seat.
Joe Clark has been praised for his many attributes. But his mistakes and lapses of judgement may have befallen his legacy. I’m sure when all is said and done, he will be remembered as a man who truly affected his party, rather than a country. Joe Clark never made a huge contribution to the Quebec problem. I believe he only exacerbated the separatism sentiment in la belle province, adding to that the growing sense of Western alienation with his support of Meech Lake and championing of the Charlottetown Accord.
His continued presence on the political scene is mere telling of his devout love of his party. He’s standing up for the Conservatives, when most believe that the Canadian Alliance, or dare I say, the Liberal party is the way to go. He’s staying on as leader merely to signal that the Tories are still there, yet prove as no viable alternative ready for the game of governing.
I guess we are witnessing history pass. Much lamented is the time when John Diefenbaker once occupied the Commons even though he’d been out of government some 20 years and under his own successor’s leadership. The Tories must reinvent itself. They must consider an amalgamation with the Alliance or the Liberals will be forever governing this country. There has to be an alternative, an opposition for the Liberals. That must come from the right and Joe Clark and his party stand in the way of that.
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