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Antony Anderson: The rise of Joe Clark, Canada’s exceptional everyman

Commentary

The Hub is pleased to present a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

February 25, 1976: Joe Clark makes his debut in the House of Commons as Leader of the Opposition

The blood barely dried, wounds still open, swarms of opponents made a display of public cheer and unity in their Parliament—here I refer to Conservative MPs who had just endured a fierce contest to choose their new leader. Emerging victorious was the member for the Alberta riding of Rocky Mountain, at 36 the youngest ever leader of the Opposition, Joe Clark. An MP for just the last four years, he seemed like an everyman—dependable, decent, free of charisma, outwardly modest—but of course he had to be exceptional to have made it this far.

Rising to speak, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcomed Clark with a grace and goodwill that seems almost naïve in our toxic day and age: “I know that we will have more than one political battle one against the other, but I comfort myself with the feeling that we are both aiming at the same good, the Canadian commonweal, and of this I think everyone is assured.” Perhaps not everyone sitting on the Tory benches was so assured.

The devoutly Liberal, regionally myopic Toronto Star had slapped a snarky headline on its front page: “JOE WHO?” But inside the pages, one of its most astute columnists, the very Tory Dalton Camp, judged that the new Conservative leader, twenty years younger than the PM, made Trudeau appear “a little shopworn.” Clark, whom Camp had met years before when they worked to unseat a deeply toxic John Diefenbaker, could challenge Trudeau “with at least as much political experience and savvy as his own. Furthermore, this younger man is just as quick and adroit.”

The neophyte leader was not a household name, but Clark had spent years in what is generally disparaged as the “backrooms” where overworked, true believers keep essential democratic wheels turning. At the University of Alberta, the keener had studied political science in theory. More importantly, he learned the true hand-to-hand art of political practice by volunteering and then working for the provincial and federal Tories, in and out of power, until he became a speechwriter and assistant to his gentlemanly predecessor, Robert Stanfield, the best PM we never had, as various quipsters would have it. Stanfield had left his perch as premier of all Nova Scotia to face two Liberal leaders, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, going down to defeat in 1968, 1972, and 1974 before deciding he had had enough—hence Clark’s opening.

By temperament and circumstance, Clark was the embodiment of that now-extinct species, the Red Tory, perfectly balancing the progressive and the conservative impulses within his party and the country. In an era when bilingualism might be seen as a devious central Canadian conspiracy, Clark’s mother had taught French to young Albertans, so the idea of speaking it was not an alien concept for him. His parents were politically active on opposite sides of the barricades, father Conservative, mother Liberal, so he grasped that opponents could still respect and even marry each other.

His father and grandfather had published one of the region’s oldest weekly newspapers and Clark had worked summer jobs at the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, so he lacked any knee-jerk loathing for journalists and journalism. Unlike most of his party and indeed the majority of Canadians, he did not support capital punishment. Perhaps most daringly of all, his wife, Maureen McTeer, had kept her own name and fully intended to finish her law degree. This smacked of open feminism!  

Clark entered the leadership race well behind fellow MP Claude Wagner, a former Quebec judge and provincial Liberal minister of justice (this heresy more readily forgiven when jumping languages and levels of government)—very much a conservative’s Conservative, the stand-out choice for the party’s right-wing. He was also seen as a potential antidote to the seemingly insurmountable sprawl of Liberal support in Quebec. Closer behind was Montreal lawyer, Brian Mulroney: flawlessly bilingual, supremely connected, a formidable backroom power player. Another contender was Kingston MP, Flora MacDonald, who had garnered enough declarations of support to conjure up visions in the party and the press of her becoming Canada’s first female PM. Other candidates with no chance at all joined the fray, not to win but to stake out future claims. Clark was on no one’s list of winners, except his own.

Braving a Canadian February and great distances, 2,300 delegates gathered at the Ottawa Civic Centre to cast their votes for eleven candidates. This was rowdy, sweaty, unscripted democracy captured in the wild on live television. As expected, Wagner led on the first ballot pulling in 531 votes followed by Mulroney with a respectable 357. Then came the curve ball. At third place, seemingly out of nowhere, stood the member for Rocky Mountain with a very credible 277 votes. Despite all the promises, Flora Macdonald was done before she started, limping into fifth place.

A stage had been set but nothing was locked in. Each ballot took some two hours to conduct so there was time for delegates and contenders to agonise, assess the damage and prospects, and scramble accordingly. The bottom three candidates declared themselves for Clark. The next ballot result was a stunner. Wagner remained in first place at 667 votes, but slow and steady Clark catapulted into second place, doubling his count to 532. Mulroney dropped to third place, the role of potential kingmaker, but he declared he was staying on for the next round. Once again, candidates nursed shattered delusions of grandeur and delegates made their calculations. Macdonald and another red-tilting candidate withdrew to endorse Clark. 

File photo of Joe Clark acknowledging the cheers as he wins the Progressive Conservative leadership race on February 22, 1976. CP PHOTO.

The third ballot must have triggered a few ulcers. Wagner barely scraped ahead with 1003 votes, with Clark sprinting right behind with 969 votes. Here Mulroney finally dropped out and declined to endorse either candidate. He would bide his time. Now it came down to a clear battle between the Right and Left wings of the right-of-centre party. On the fourth ballot, a mere 65 delegates decided the temporary fate of the two gladiators still standing. 1,122 voted for Wagner. 1,187 voted for Clark. This was one of the greatest upsets ever seen at a Canadian convention. Clark was the nice guy who had defied the odds, the skeptics, and the tides and finished first. It helped that he had a core of steel.

The new leader knew he had deep breaches to heal. He urged tired delegates and bitter egos to “suspend the empty arguments of Left and Right. We are one broad party. And I am in the centre of it—with the great majority of you.” But as is often the case in such a tribal enterprise, Clark would have to keep closer watch over his shoulder at his own colleagues than at his more obvious opponents across the aisle of the House of Commons.

Three years later, Clark won a minority government, which was toppled in a vote of confidence a few months afterward, and then lost the February 1980 election. For such failures, the party faithful unceremoniously dumped him at the 1983 leadership convention for the flashy guy from Montreal who had always looked like a winner. True to himself, Clark played the long game, persisted, and prevailed to become one of the longest-serving and most effective foreign ministers Canada has ever had—the exceptional everyman.

The Weekly Wrap: Poilievre proves he’s more than a live-and-let-live libertarian

Commentary

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on three of the past week’s biggest stories, including Pierre Poilievre’s support for age verification to access pornography, the Conservatives’ youth movement, and the American Right’s continued descent into a cult of personality.

Debates over access to porn dominate Ottawa

Pornography was at the centre of Canadian politics this week. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre surprised some political observers by signaling support for legislation that would require age verification for Canadians to access online porn. 

Although he didn’t provide much detail about how such a law might ultimately be implemented, Poilievre’s endorsement in principle represents a notable divergence from the libertarian politics with which he’s become associated. It reflects a more nuanced worldview than we’ve typically seen from him, and is an implicit recognition of Stephen Harper’s axiom that “Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry.” 

What Harper was conveying in his influential 2003 Civitas address, and what Poilievre’s surprise announcement on online pornography signals, is that in today’s political context it isn’t sufficient for conservatives to merely confront progressivism’s economic agenda. They must also be prepared to challenge the excesses of its sociocultural agenda too. As Harper put it: 

On a wide range of public-policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and childcare, and healthcare and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues.

Canadian conservatism, in other words, must strive for a synthesis between liberal ideals of individual autonomy and freedom and traditional understandings of social norms and values. Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper, and others have referred to this intellectual and political tradition as “ordered liberty.” 

The subject of online pornography for minors is arguably a prime one for conservatives’ conception of order to trump their commitment to freedom. The negative effects of ubiquitous porn in general and for young people in particular are quite overwhelming. Evidence tells us that the harms extend from individuals to social relationships and ultimately society as a whole. There’s certainly a conceptual case therefore that individual freedoms related to accessing pornography—particularly for minors—ought to be curtailed in the name of the social good. 

The details of course matter. There will be an onus on Poilievre at some point to outline how the goal of age verification would be effectuated. A current Senate bill that’s supposed to be taken up in the House of Commons is vague on how it should be implemented and who is ultimately responsible for overseeing it. But even if these are complex questions, they’re presumably not intractable. The British government is currently working on them as part of the coming into force of its own legislation. There are doubtless lessons to learn from its imperfect experience

But for now, Poilievre’s announcement is as important for its symbolism as its substance. It signals that he’s not merely a live-and-let-live libertarian. His worldview is instead more textured than his rhetoric sometimes reveals. It makes one wonder in what other instances we may see him diverge from a strict libertarian position in pursuit of the “balance” that Harper envisioned more than 20 years ago.

In the meantime, it’s worth acknowledging the key role that Hub contributor Ginny Roth has played in building a first-principles and policy-based case in favour of the position that Poilievre articulated this week. She’s been a consistent voice at The Hub for what she describes as a “conservative feminism”, including an August 2023 column that advanced the case for “age-gating” online pornography, and deserves a lot of credit for contributing to the intellectual conditions that led to Poilievre’s surprising announcement. It’s a valuable reminder of the power of ideas in politics. 

The Millennial influence on the Conservative Party is only growing

This week, the Canadian Club Toronto hosted a much-anticipated panel discussion with Millennial Conservative MPs Adam Chambers, Melissa Lantsman, and Shuvaloy Majumdar as well as prospective candidate Sabrina Maddeaux. The sold-out event was ably moderated by Hub contributor Ginny Roth. 

Although its general theme was the state of Canadian Conservative politics, the conversation’s underlying idea was the generational change represented by the participants themselves. They personify the growing influence of Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives) in our politics. It’s fitting that the event was held on the same day that Statistics Canada reported that Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as the country’s large demographic group. 

Canadian Conservatism (and conservatism) is increasingly a microcosm of this demographic shift in the broader society. Yet, as I’ve previously written, its major generational transformation has gone largely underreported by the mainstream media. The political consequences are nevertheless bound to be significant. 

The Parliament of Canada’s website makes it somewhat challenging to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the age distribution of the different parliamentary caucuses. But a cursory review of the Conservative shadow cabinet and the Trudeau government’s own cabinet (as well as the caucuses overall) is suggestive that the Conservatives are on balance younger than the Liberals. Pierre Poilievre for instance is roughly eight years younger than Justin Trudeau. Chambers and Lantsman (who are both members of the Conservative shadow cabinet) are between 15 and 17 years younger than their Liberal counterparts. 

These generational differences were on display at the Canadian Club event. The discussion covered a set of issues that wouldn’t have necessarily animated previous gatherings of conservatives. One example: There was a unique focus on fertility rates, family formation, and the role of government policy to improve the conditions for families to flourish. 

It’s not that previous generations of Conservatives (and conservatives) were indifferent to these questions. But rather their attention and focus were mostly dedicated to the issues that had been part of their own formative political experiences. As a result, the centre of gravity for a lot of Conservative (and conservative) Baby Boomers was the economic stagnation and fiscal crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. They came of age litigating debates about taxes, spending, and the size of government in the economy. 

While these issues still matter to Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives), they’ve since been superseded by a new set of concerns that sit at the nexus of the so-called “success sequence.” The promise of educational returns, marriage, home ownership, and family formation has been fundamentally disrupted in the modern era and, in turn, led to a reorientation of conservative priorities.

Consider the following: a previous study by the Cardus Institute has found that more than half of Canadians in working-class jobs are now over-credentialized. Mortgage eligibility in the City of Toronto is increasingly limited to those with household incomes in the top ten percent. The average age of first-time mothers has increased to 31.6 years old. And research from last year tells us that Canadian women are having fewer children than they tell pollsters they want. 

These unique challenges facing younger Canadians require a voice and, as this week’s Canadian Club event demonstrates, it’s Conservatives (and conservatives) who are disproportionately giving them expression. And so far they’re being rewarded for it. The Conservative Party now outperforms the Liberals with the 18-39 age demographic which makes it an outlier among centre-right parties across the Anglosphere. 

It prompts the question: will the next election be the first in which Millennials assert their new generational power over our politics? 

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux/AP Photo.
Trump’s complete and total takeover of American conservatism

American conservatives are gathered in Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, which was first launched in 1974 with a keynote speech by future President Ronald Reagan, is one of the highest-profile events on the conservative calendar. Thousands of grassroots attendees come each year to hear speeches from leading right-wing activists and politicians. 

CPAC’s evolution over the past several years is a metaphor for broader trends in American conservatism. It’s a long way from Reagan’s inaugural address to this year’s Reagan dinner speaker Vivek Ramaswamy. 

I attended CPAC a few times in the early 2000s. My friends and I went to hear leading political figures like George W. Bush and Paul Ryan as well as intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer and George Will. 

The conference was a bit edgy and quirky. Ron Paul regularly won the presidential straw poll, which of course was unrepresentative of his broader political support. But the overall vibe was solidly mainstream.

In the Trump years, though, CPAC has become an expression of the former president’s takeover of American conservatism. The ideas and values that used to underpin the conference (often characterized on bumper stickers or t-shirts by phrases like “faith, freedom, and free enterprise”) have been subordinated to accommodate Trump’s ideological incoherence. A former head of the American Conservative Union, which organizes and hosts the conference, recently said that “I don’t recognize it anymore. It all gravitates around Donald Trump.”

The list of this year’s speakers—including Lara Trump, Steve Bannon, and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell—reinforces his point. The conference, which used to be a platform for intra-debate among conservatives, is now carefully configured around Trump’s ego and political impulses. It’s become a cult of personality. The former president who headlines the program on Saturday has seemingly reshaped the movement that Reagan used to personify.

It’s interesting to think about the direction of causality here. Did Trump channel or change American conservatism? If it’s the former, what’s behind the change between the CPACs that I attended and this year’s conference? Is it mostly explained by a counter-radicalization to excesses on the Left or is something else going on? If it’s the latter, are people primarily motivated by affective polarization or have they actually changed their views to align them with Trump? However one answers these questions, there’s no doubt that something has changed—and I’d argue it’s for the worse.

Late last year when I interviewed George Will for Hub Dialogues I told him that we had previously met at CPAC in 2007. He replied: “that’s before it went crazy.”