The Man Who Should Be Prime Minister

Joe Clark

All right, who laughed?

Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. I may be serious, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the irony.

Recently, I stumbled upon an interesting curiosity: a book. It was entitled Joe Clark: The Emerging Leader, by Michael Nolan. I’m going to quote the final paragraph:

Throughout it all Clark, seemingly undaunted, has plodded ahead, meeting the electorate and methodically building up the voters’ perceptions of his abilities. His past experience tells him that the key to winning lies in a strong party organization. He knows all too well the Conservative propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He also knows he may never get another chance to move into 24 Sussex Drive. The election campaign will be the greatest challenge of Joe Clark’s career.

If you haven’t guessed already, this book was published in 1978, just before Clark’s brief rise to power. It’s an interesting historical document, long out of print, describing in detail Clark’s entry into politics, and the machinations in the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership race. It was professionally published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, one of Canada’s larger publishing houses, but it is a remarkable book for its optimism. You’re looking at a politician at the start of a major new phase of a political career, it’s a little early to be writing a biography about him without making it something of a partisan document

And perhaps it’s because, at the time, we’re only describing Joe Clark’s rise to Leader of the Opposition, that the book still manages to capture that indescribable hapless quality of the man. An ‘inspiring’ picture of the man addressing seniors has him standing on a metal chair surrounded by a handful of attendees — compare that to the backgrounds that Bush and Obama and other politicians manufacture these days… well, there is no comparison.

And yet…

History recounts Robert Stanfield as the best prime minister Canada never had, but Joe Clark could give the man a run for his money. Yes, Clark is somewhat disqualified by the fact that he actually was the prime minister, but being in power for less than nine months hardly counts in the history books. And I’m sure Clark holds something of a record of being passed over twice, taking over the moribund Progressive Conservative party after its support collapsed in the wake of Brian Mulroney and leading it… sort of nowhere.

I seem to be doomed to championing political lost causes. I was a card-carrying member of Mel Hurtig’s National Party in 1993, and stayed with them until their collapse about a year later. The first time I voted, I voted for Bob Rae. He won that election and became Ontario’s premier, and I believe he did the best job that was possible for any leader at that time. I’m somewhat alone in that conviction. I currently have my support rather firmly parked with the Green Party, and while the provincial wing took an unprecedented 8% of the vote in the Ontario election, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever get a seat, either in Queen’s Park or Ottawa.

And when Jean Charest was encouraged to resign the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party to lead the federalist forces in Quebec, I delighted in the fact that Joe Clark was making a comeback to be leader of the old Tories. And just as the picture of the man standing on a folding chair to address a small gathering of voters has some indescribable hapless quality around it, it’s hard to describe the sense of integrity that Joe Clark brought with him when he took over the leadership of his party for the second time. Perhaps the indescribable qualities are one and the same.

This is the man who, despite his lowly record, still handed Pierre Trudeau his first electoral defeat. This is the man who set a bar in Canadian politics by following through on his promise to resign if he didn’t get more than 70% support during his leadership review (one that John Tory is struggling with). This is the man who, when handed the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs at a time when the Meech Lake Accord failed — a move that several commentators at the time described as Mulroney “finally extracting his revenge” on Clark — went out and doggedly addressed all the premiers, and managed to pull together the Charlottetown Accord out of basically nothing.

The man wanted so much to do well, but had none of the slick qualities that Trudeau and Mulroney exuded, and this was his greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness. He had an integrity about him — he eschewed those vote-grubbing qualities that we hate in politicians, but which make us vote for them anyway.

But Clark is perhaps the unluckiest politician in recent Canadian history. Not only did he let his government slip from his fingers in 1980, I am absolutely convinced that he missed the opportunity to become prime minister in 2004 by less than a year.

Clark didn’t do a bad job in his second stint as leader of the Progressive Conservatives. He won back official recognition of the Progressive Conservatives in parliament (correction: he kept it. Jean Charest won it back the election before), winning a tough fight for his Albertan seat. Later in his last term, he flirted with creating a united right of his own, taking in disaffected Canadian Alliance MPs during their spat with leader Stockwell Day. In most polls, Clark was the most popular party leader of the five, but PC numbers trailed well behind his popularity, and in the end he gave up the reins, citing that very fact, and hoping that a new, younger leader could help rebuild the party. Peter MacKay won the following leadership contest, and ultimately led the Progressive Conservatives into oblivion, uniting the right behind Stephen Harper’s Conservative-branded Canadian Alliance.

For those of us who construct “what ifs” in history, this is just such a node. Consider if Clark had not resigned. If he had stuck it out to the 2004 election — an election called when AdScam was at its height and public anger over Liberal corruption was at its freshest, where Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance was seen as too right-wing, too untested, to take the Liberals’ place. In the real world, the fight between the tired, arrogant Liberal Party and the inexperienced hard-right Conservatives resulted in a tenuous minority parliament. A better party on either side would have won it all hands down; clearly, Canadians were eager for a third choice that wasn’t present on the ballot. But in an alternative history, Clark, the party leader with experience and seen by most Canadians as having the most integrity, could have led the Progressive Conservative party into an election fought on the issue of integrity.

I am sure that, had the Progressive Conservatives existed in the 2004 election, they would have won the most seats, and Clark could have been prime minister again. And unlike Stephen Harper in 2006, Clark would have had decent coalition partners to work with on the other side of the aisle.

The poor man. Were I in his shoes, I’d be bashing my head in the mirror every morning.

Joe Clark: The Emerging Leader was in the book clearance bin of the main branch of Kitchener’s Public Library, on sale for twenty-five cents. It’s not often that you get to take political gravestones home with you, so I bought it. It now sits in my (short) political literature shelf, right next to a biography of Pierre Trudeau. Strangely enough, they seem to belong together.

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