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On the 153rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 6, 2020

This series is based on my paper, An Ineluctable Direction of Progressive Development?: The Ongoing Failure of the Right in Canada (read by Dr. Tomasz Soroka) 8th Congress of Polish Canadianists (Polish Association for Canadian Studies) “Canadian (Re)Visions: Futures, Changes, Revolutions” (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz, Faculty of Philology) PACS, September 25-27, 2019.

In the 1972 federal election, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, fell only two seats behind the Liberals. That election could have gone either way. The election was characterized by extensive “negative campaigning” by the Liberals, such as the famous “football fumble photograph” taken of Robert Stanfield. The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social democratic party, declared their support for the Liberals, thus keeping them in power until 1974.

In 1974, the Liberals won another majority.

In 1976, Joe Clark was selected leader of the Progressive Conservative party. There were surely better leaders available, who could have avoided Clark’s reputation for bungling.

In the 1979 election, Joe Clark unexpectedly won a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons). He was a real bungler, for example, declaring “that he would govern as if he had won a majority”. He made no effort to attract the six Creditistes from Quebec, who could have upheld a majority in the House of Commons. Joe Clark’s defeat in Parliament on a non-confidence motion in 1979 could have conceivably been won with the support of the five Creditistes. (One had earlier joined the P.C.s.)

In the 1980 election, after Trudeau came back from a supposed retirement, the Liberals won another majority. They were able to bring in the Constitution Act, 1982, most importantly encompassing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau called this “patriating the Constitution”. Considering that Canada had been given full self-government through the Statute of Westminster (1931) it was rather dubious that this “patriation” was even necessary. The Charter was characterized by both its supporters and critics as a virtual coup d’état. It basically set up nearly all of Trudeau’s most cherished principles as the highest law of the land. It also set the stage for an “activist judiciary” – where, unlike in the case of the United States – one would have been hard-pressed to find even one designated conservative on the Canadian Supreme Court.

Joe Clark clung on to the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, but it was clear his days were numbered. Forced to call a leadership convention because of weak support in a leadership review vote, Joe Clark continued to put himself forward as a candidate for the leadership. In the amazing dynamic of a leadership convention based on delegates, Brian Mulroney rather than John Crosbie won the leadership. Much of Mulroney’s success was due to Joe Clark’s clinging on to the bitter end, rather than, for example, throwing his delegates to Crosbie. It was a fateful choice. Although, in 1983-1984, Mulroney, with a few well-timed statements, allowed the mantle of a “right-winger” to fall on him (probably feeling that it could help him in the oncoming federal election) once in office he governed with an unusual timidity. Indeed, in an ironic reversal of Joe Clark, Mulroney governed as if he had won a minority government, rather than one of the largest majorities in Canadian history. One of the most salient unconservative things Mulroney did was to raise the immigration numbers to a quarter-million persons a year (whereas they had actually fallen to 54,000 in Trudeau’s last year in office in 1983-1984). By now 75 to 80 percent of the immigration was from the Third World.

So-called “small-c conservatives” (or substantive conservatives) had had enough of Mulroney. Indeed, in the 1980s, they were frequently derided (both inside and outside the party) as “cashew conservatives”, that is “right-wing nuts”. Mulroney had also snidely said that “all the ideological conservatives in Canada could probably fit into a telephone booth”.

In November 1987, Preston Manning co-founded the Reform Party of Canada – which was initially based solely in Western Canada. The party played a negligible role in the 1988 federal election, which Mulroney had framed as a referendum on Free Trade with the U.S. Actually, while it is considered Mulroney’s main “right-wing” accomplishment, Free Trade with the U.S. had traditionally been opposed by the Conservatives (who looked to Britain), and supported by the Liberal Party. Ironically, John Turner, the Liberal leader, who was patriotically arguing against the Free Trade deal, could be seen as more of a traditional conservative than Brian Mulroney. Nevertheless, the Progressive Conservatives won a majority in the 1988 federal election.

The time of reckoning for the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives would come in the 1993 federal election, when, under the leadership of Kim Campbell, they won only two seats. They were caught between the rise of the Reform Party in Western Canada (52 seats), and the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec (54 seats). The Liberals won a majority under Jean Chretien. The Reform Party had become a Canada-wide party by 1991.

As soon as they had entered the federal Parliament, the Reformers were making overtures to the federal P.C.s, to absorb that now-tiny party. However, the Liberal Party and the media encouraged the federal P.C.s to hang on. In 1996, when the federal P.C.s seemed close to dissolution, the Reformers marched straight into a Liberal Party ambush over gay rights. A Reform M.P. was quoted making some inflammatory comments about “having gays or blacks work at the back of the store” and the characterization of Reform as the “party of bigotry” became widely circulated. Indeed, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien went so far as to compare the Reform Party to the Ku Klux Klan!

The failure of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum – which came within a fraction of a percentage of success -- was also a turning point which failed to turn. Ironically, the success of the referendum could have had a profoundly conservatizing effect on English-speaking Canada, as it would have betokened the failure of the long-standing Liberal vision of Canada. Presumably, Preston Manning would have been in a good position to pick up a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada, should an election have been held in the wake of the referendum.

In 1998, Preston Manning began a “re-branding” initiative within the Reform Party, called “the United Alternative”. However, Joe Clark won the leadership of the federal P.C.s in that year, and he stubbornly held out against any partnership with the Reform Party.

As a result of the United Alternative, the Reform Party was re-named the Canadian Alliance, or, more fully, the Canadian Reform and Conservative Alliance. (There was another example of conservative bungling with the initial name, Canadian Conservative and Reform Alliance – or “C-CRAP” as it was dubbed by the Liberals and media.) The Canadian Alliance was opened up to a leadership selection process. The former Alberta Treasurer, Stockwell Day, rallied so-called “social conservatives” to wrest the leadership away from Preston Manning. Stockwell Day gave the impression of being a young, dynamic leader.

However, Joe Clark still refused to come on board with the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 federal election. It could be argued that Stockwell Day had a real chance of winning the 2000 federal election, before a flurry of “negative campaigning” by the Liberal Party. The Canadian Alliance was accused of being “a haven for Holocaust-deniers, racists, and bigots”.

Stockwell Day was also personally accused of being “a fundamentalist Christian extremist”, and the label stuck with many voters. A Liberal political operative made great fun of Stockwell Day’s supposed belief in the divine creation of Earth six thousand years ago. In the 2000 federal election, the Canadian Alliance received a quarter of the popular vote, winning 66 seats, 64 in Western Canada, and two in Ontario.

In 2001, the constant sniping at Stockwell Day by the Liberal Party and the media, induced a caucus revolt in the Canadian Alliance, which at one point encompassed thirteen M.P.s. Stockwell Day was forced to call for a leadership election. Although Stockwell Day ran as a candidate for the leadership, it was Stephen Harper who won the leadership in 2002.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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