Joe Clark wins Liberal Leadership 30 years later
It was February 22, 1976, and the man who had less than 12% support and came 3rd on the first ballot (Joe Clark) went on to win the federal P.C. leadership race at the Ottawa Civic Centre. I was merely an accredited observer back then, and a lot more taken by the fancy CBC news cameras and Brian Mulroney’s prodigious fundraising abilities than the new leader.
Yesterday’s Liberal Leadership convention brought me back to that 1976 weekend:
– no one imagined that Dion had a chance when he threw his hat into the ring, just as with Clark (not until last Tuesday’s Globe and Mail poll showed that 22% had Dion as their 2nd choice, versus sub 5% for Iggy);
– the two frontrunners (Iggy and Rae) came into the race with considerable baggage of their own, or brought it on themselves as the race went along, as with Brian Mulroney and Claude Wagner;
– The 1976 P.C.s were facing a Quebec-based Prime Minister (Pierre Trudeau), and figured that an Albertan would be a tonic; this time, the 2006 Grits were facing an Alberta- (and Etobicoke) based Conservative Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) and went with a Francophone;
– in later ballots, the Mulroney delegates couldn’t possibly move to Wagner as a pack given the bad blood of weeks gone by, and were left to support Clark, someone they never imagined would still be in the race when their guy fell off; this time it was the Kennedy and Rae delegates who determined that someone who earned sub 18% and came 3rd (as with Clark) on the first ballot was ultimately worthy of the Liberal leadership;
– everyone used that wonderful phrase “he’s a decent person” to describe Clark 30 years ago; how many times did we hear Dion referred to in that manner? I lost count.
Iggy, for all his genius, proved to be Kim Campbell in spades. It should have been so easy for the only obvious heir to the Trudeau mantle to sweep the race, but his candidcacy died the death of a thousand self-inflicted wounds, just as with Campbell in the ’93 federal election.
In choosing Dion, the Liberals have done what does not come naturally to them: they’ve gone with Idealism over Winnability. Partly, they were pushed there by what TV pundits called “outsiders”: in the form of Iggy and Rae. But it is still amazing to see Canada’s Natural Governing Party elect a modern day Joe Clark as leader:
– Chantel Hebert referred to Dion’s “quiet charm” when grasping for a compliment on CBC TV; in 1979 we used to say that if every Canadian could just meet Joe Clark they’d surely vote for him;
– as with Clark, Dion is not seen to represent the broad base of his home Province; Clark never looked comfortable as an Albertan, despite his High River pedigree, and vice-versa; Dion’s popularity in Quebec, outside of the strongly federalist pockets, is sorely lacking;
– each gained the throne despite being unwanted, on first glance, by about 85% of delegates on the first ballot;
The successful federal leaders of the last 30 years could deliver a speech to a room of partisans and have them leave excited and uplifted: Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien and even Martin (at least before he became PM) to a certain extent. What’s interesting about Dion is that he has the clinical and low-key approach at a lecturn of the current Prime Minister; and that may be his saving grace. Dion against a Dief-type populist would be quite a sight.
As for some predictions about tomorrow: Bob Rae will make plans to return to his law practice at Goodmans LLP. Iggy will get a welcome call from the Kennedy School at Harvard. Scott Brison will still be kicking himself for choosing not one but two losers (first he went to Rae, then Iggy). Liberal M.P. Paul Zed will be kicking himself for calling Scott Brison the “soul” of the Liberal Party on national television. Peter Mansbridge will be kicking himself for choosing the panel he did; six+ hours is a very long time. Conference organizers will still regret waiting until 6 p.m. to release the 4th ballot results, forgetting that Iggy and former P.M. Paul Martin would precede Dion at the podium, eating into the new leader’s supper hour TV time. The President of the CBC will get an angry call from the President of the Liberal Party, demanding to know why the CBC cut to hockey at 6:30 p.m., right in the middle of the new leader’s acceptance speech.
And Prime Minister Harper will smile to himself as he pulls up to his office in the Langevin Block at 80 Wellington Street East in Ottawa, knowing that he won’t be leaving any time soon.