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Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983

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Title: Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Joe Clark, Tom Long (politician), Leadership review, Alasdair Roberts (academic), Michael Wilson (Canadian politician)
Collection: 1983 Elections in Canada, Progressive Conservative Party of Canada Leadership Elections
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Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983

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Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983
Date June 11, 1983
Convention Ottawa, Ontario
Resigning leader Joe Clark
Won by Brian Mulroney
Ballots 4
Candidates 7
Entrance Fee C$5,000[1]
Spending limit None

The 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership election was held on June 11, 1983 in Ottawa, Ontario to elect a leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. At the convention, Brian Mulroney was elected leader of the PC Party on the fourth ballot, defeating former Prime Minister Joe Clark.


  • Background 1
  • Candidates 2
  • The campaign 3
    • Quebec 3.1
    • Davis and Lougheed 3.2
    • John Crosbie 3.3
  • Convention strategy 4
  • The convention 5
  • Aftermath 6
  • Works Consulted 7
  • See also 8


Joe Clark on the floor of the Progressive Conservative leadership convention, 1983.
Joe Clark had been leader of the PCs after winning the 1976 leadership convention. While credited with uniting the PCs after the difficult Stanfield years and leading the party to victory in the 1979 federal election, a divisive austerity budget resulted in the government falling. The Conservatives lost the subsequent 1980 federal election, and found themselves returned to opposition.

After the 1980 defeat, Clark unexpectedly decided to stay on. At the 1981 convention, 33.5% of delegates supported a leadership review, which was generally seen as a high number. Clark's internal strategy, led by his Chief of Staff Lowell Murray, was to bring dissidents into the party structure.

Clark's external strategy was to change the party's longstanding strategy of obtaining large wins in English Canada and then appealing to Québec voters with the advantage of holding government to obtain a majority. Believing that the party's base was now too narrow to initially win government, Clark began an attempt to broaden the party to include women, multicultural communities, and nationalist Québec voters.

Though the approach began to pay some dividends, including favourable attention in Québec after the patriation of the constitution, opponents remained prominent in the party and the national media. They could generally be divided into two groups: The first were not convinced Clark, given his personality and the unpopularity of the 1979-80 government, had the ability to win another election. Others within the party maintained that Clark's outreach and moderate policy decisions were aloof from the party's grassroots, which had begun to embrace neoliberal and monetarist reforms that were currently being pursued in the United Kingdom and United States.

At the party's national convention in Winnipeg in January 1983, the chief issue was again Clark's leadership. The issue mobilized supporters and detractors of Clark to a degree not usually seen at biennial conventions. At the convention 66.9% of the delegates voted against, and 33.1% voted for leadership review. Clark, seeing only a marginal gain in popularity among his party, decided with his advisers that he would resign as leader, but opt to run in the convention to succeed himself. This was seen within his inner circle the only way to drown out the opposition to his leadership, as the previous attempts to reach out to opponents had left the party leadership unable to push back.

After a short rebound after the patriation of the Constitution, the Liberals lagged in opinion polls, with the PCs ahead at times by over 20 percentage points. While Clark would probably have thought this an advantage, it also made the leadership a much more lucrative prize than it would have been.


Joe Clark was supported by the more centrist elements of the party, Québec nationalists, some Red Tories, and most of the party's Toronto-based establishment. Clark at this point was fluently bilingual and making inroads into Quebec, traditionally the weakest Tory province. Clark's efforts to broaden the party's ideological reach were generally seen as making him weaker in traditional conservative bedrocks such as Western Canada and rural Ontario.

Brian Mulroney, who had lost to Clark at the 1976 leadership convention, was the early front-runner. As former head of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Mulroney attracted much of the party's pro-business faction in Toronto and Montreal. Mulroney's main pitch was that as a fluently bilingual native Quebecer, he would enable the party to break the Liberal Party's stranglehold on Quebec's seats in the House of Commons.

John Crosbie, who had been Clark's Minister of Finance in 1979, was known as an accomplished debater with a sense of humour, and was generally seen as the most personable candidate. He attempted to distinguish himself by adopting what he called a "continentalist" platform, with the centerpiece being free trade with the United States of America. His campaign was chiefly hobbled by his inability to speak French, and by a political base that was concentrated in the small province of Newfoundland.

Michael Wilson, who was a well-respected Bay Street banker and had been Minister of State for International Trade in Clark's government. He attracted modest support within his home province of Ontario, inherited the bulk of abortive candidate Peter Blaikie's support in Quebec and gained only a smattering of support from other provinces. While Tories respected his financial acumen, he was an uninspiring speaker who struggled in French.

David Crombie, the former mayor of Toronto, and another minister in Clark's cabinet, attracted moderates who opposed Clark's leadership. Crombie was the only candidate to openly identify himself as a "Red Tory." [2]

Peter Pocklington, a mercurial Alberta businessperson ran a campaign based on strict adherence to the principles of free enterprise, with most of his focus on a flat tax. He gained some support through the Amway retail system.

John Gamble, the Member of Parliament for York North, a riding north of Toronto managed to attract a small band of supporters with a hard-line right-wing platform. Gamble had been an outspoken critic of Clark, and had hoped to parlay his role in Clark's downfall into a strong showing at the convention and a role in a future Conservative cabinet.

Neil Fraser, a former civil servant fired for publicly opposing the metric conversion in Canada, mounted a campaign that had no visible followers.[3] Granted the same nationally televised 25 minutes as the other candidates for his convention address, Fraser engaged in a bizarre speech that likened Confederation to a blood transfusion to Quebec.[4] Lise Bissonnette commented that if the speech had been heard on Radio-Canada, it would have set the Tories' Quebec efforts back 10 years.[5]

The campaign

John Crosbie on the floor of the 1983 leadership convention.

Each Federal riding was permitted to elect 6 delegates to the convention: 2 "youth" delegates and four regular delegates, one of which had to be female. Student associations were able to send 3 youth delegates each to the convention. PC MPs and MLAs were permitted to be ex officio delegates, and provincial associates were able to elect "at-large" delegates. Ridings and associations controlled their own nomination procedure, so contests themselves were held sporadically throughout the country, concluding by the end of April.

While campaigns focused on electing slates of sympathetic delegates, elected delegates were not bound to campaigns, and around 60% were "undecided" in the race after the elections. This meant that the primary focus of campaigning by the candidates was to appeal to elected delegates and influence their preferences in later round.

Clark already had a sizable campaign team up and running by the time of his calling the leadership convention, as he had mobilized support to help gain delegates in the leadership review.[6] Mulroney and Crosbie had been laying the groundwork for a campaign for some time, with Crosbie expecting Clark to lose or resign soon, and Mulroney supportive of the anti-Clark movement.


Quebec riding associations, which had tended few active riding executives, were overrun with Clark and Mulroney organizers in short order and many held votes within the first week of the campaign with set delegate slates. Clark's supporters tended to be former Union Nationale, Créditiste, and nationalist voters, while Mulroney's support came primarily from disaffected Liberals.[7] These contests were especially fierce: Voters only had to be PC members for five days before the vote was held, leading to many "five day wonders" that simply paid the $3 membership fee, with party operators receiving $10 commissions per voter.[8] The lack of an age limit meant that children as young as 9 were recruited by the Clark and Mulroney camps to vote, with one 15-year-old recruiting 20 of her classmates.[8] Most infamously, a CBC TV report showed a bus full of obviously intoxicated men from a homeless shelter traveling to vote for Mulroney in Montreal.[8]

A meeting between the eight candidates would set stricter rules going forward. The Clark and Mulroney camps roughly split the province's delegates, which was seen as a strategic victory for the Clark side after Mulroney's boast that Clark "won't have enough support in Quebec to get a bridge game."[9]

Davis and Lougheed

Much of the campaign's early months were overshadowed by speculation about Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed. Both premiers commanded great respect in the party and would have easily been front runners had they chosen to run. They had also been at opposite ends of the patriation and energy debates in prior years. The latter issue created an open feud between them during Clark's 1979-80 PC government and had significantly harmed the national party's reputation for offering more conciliatory federal-provincial relations.

Clark attempted to divine Davis's intentions by making a series of public remarks, including that Davis was "regional candidate" and that he had encouraged bilingual educational reforms as an election measure.[10] The remarks angered Davis and his "Big Blue Machine" campaign team, which began to create a national structure and solicit positive responses throughout the party hierarchy, including most PC Premiers.[11] The day before announcing his candidacy, Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine called Davis, downplayed his prior support and informed him that Lougheed would campaign explicitly against him if he ran and that he could not support his candidacy.[12] Devine's reversal had been preceded by other warnings regarding Lougheed's intentions and Davis felt that, while he could win, to do so against Lougheed and Clark would fatally divide the party on regional lines.[12]

Davis's move left Crombie and Wilson some hope in Ontario for recruiting members of Davis's campaign team, however, it would disperse to all the candidates.

Lougheed declined to enter the race, but further influenced it: he insisted on inviting leadership candidates for interviews with the Alberta PC Caucus to help determine their support. The caucus meeting was referred to by candidates as an "inquisition" and seen as using provincial government resources for an internal party election at the federal level.

Media coverage emphasized the pro-business and neo-liberal rhetoric of most of the candidates as a "changing of the guard" within the PC Party from their more classical conservative and moderate elements.[13] This allowed the Clark campaign to try casting the race as between a series of right wingers and a centrist who had been able to defeat the Liberals and had brought a multitude of previously excluded groups into the party. The Mulroney campaign responded by continuing its pro-business line, but attacking Crosbie's proposal for a free trade agreement and championing bilingualism to find a middle ground between delegates. Crosbie's free trade proposal found a surprisingly large following with the traditionally protectionist Progressive Conservatives, even among delegates who didn't support him. The party's platform under Mulroney embraced free trade by 1987.

John Crosbie

John Crosbie was seen as the dark horse of the race, with some of his delegates wearing buttons that had Clark and Mulroney as fighting hares, featuring Crosbie as a tortoise sneaking by. Crosbie's personal popularity within the party attracted many talented advisors, and among the more creative moves was exploiting a loophole in the rules that "student associations" could have delegates by creating over 20 new student associations at Canadian universities. 18 associations were accepted, among those rejected was a Newfoundland Flight school.

Crosbie's campaign hit a major snag, however, when he snapped at a news reporter in Longueuil for raising his unilingualism, saying that he would still be able to understand Quebec issues, as his lack of French was similar to not speaking German or another language. While the incident could not harm Crosbie with Quebec delegates, which were already largely split between committed Clark and Mulroney slates, the outburst was seen as showing delegates who were undecided or supporting minor candidates that it would be an issue in the federal election and could harm the party's chances of winning.

Pocklington's campaign was hampered by the fact that his Edmonton Oilers were in the Stanley Cup playoffs and he insisted on taking trips to Long Island, angering potential supporters. He was embarrassingly confronted by the Mayor of Belleville, Ontario on the convention floor for missing a scheduled meeting.

Controversy erupted on May 23 when then-CBC reporter Mike Duffy reported in the beginning of May that Mulroney's and four other candidates' agents had met to make an "ABC" (Anybody But Clark) strategy for the convention.[14] While Mulroney denied the meeting repeatedly, threatening to sue Duffy for libel at one point,[14] the other candidates' campaigns admitted to the meeting.

Convention strategy

Due to the leak of the "ABC" meeting, it was believed that Clark would have to score very close to 50% on the first ballot in order to regain the leadership. Clark's strategy relied on a large first ballot total, featuring a good part of the Quebec delegates, that would bring the left-leaning Crombie and Clark-loyalist Wilson to his side.

Mulroney's strategy remained mobilizing anti-Clark sentiment, which was spread fairly evenly around the other candidates, toward himself. However, over enthusiastic aides had leaked plans and negotiations with the Wilson and Crombie campaigns, and an impromptu invasion of the latter's campaign headquarters had alienated Crombie from his campaign.

Crosbie hoped to use his status as the least polarizing personality to attract delegates from either Mulroney or Clark if there had been a disappointing finish by either, and to attract support from minor candidates.

Despite ideological differences, Pocklington, Crombie, and Wilson were all on good terms throughout the race, with some speculation that if either of their delegate numbers were respectable, the three candidates could mount a movement together, greatly influencing the outcome.

The convention

When Crosbie was introduced, his rented mini-Blimp failed to work properly. Most delegates were watching it when Crosbie made a wrong turn on his grand entrance.

Pocklington and Wilson fell far below his predictions of delegates. the only advisor close to predicting his number had jokingly guessed "99", a reference to the jersey number of Oilers' star Wayne Gretzky. He, Gamble, and Fraser supported Mulroney after the first ballot, with Fraser being automatically taken off the ballot.

Clark's vote numbers fell in the second ballot, with Mulroney pulling closer. Crombie was eliminated, and supported Crosbie. Many Clark delegates were considering switching to Crosbie to hold off Mulroney, and Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford was shown on television attempting to persuade Clark to drop out and endorse Crosbie. However, Crosbie's unilingualism, lack of support in Quebec, and more right-wing economics did not appeal to Clark.

Crosbie finished last on the third ballot. The conventional wisdom was that his delegates would break at least 2:1 in favour of Mulroney over Clark. The conventional wisdom played out, with Mulroney being elected on the fourth ballot and declared the winner.

Political commentators have said that of the other possible two-man ballots among the front runners, Clark would probably have had the advantage over Crosbie (because Crosbie could not speak French), while Crosbie could possibly have defeated Mulroney (due to the general "Anyone but Mulroney" sentiment of the Clark delegates).

Delegate support by ballot
Candidate 1st ballot 2nd ballot 3rd ballot 4th ballot
Votes cast % Votes cast % Votes cast % Votes cast %
Joe Clark 1,091 36.5% 1,085 36.7% 1,058 35.8% 1,325 45.6%
Brian Mulroney 874 29.2% 1,021 34.6% 1,036 35.1% 1,584 54.5%
John Crosbie 639 21.4% 781 26.4% 858 29.1% Did not endorse
Michael Wilson 144 4.8% Endorsed Mulroney
David Crombie 116 3.9% 67 2.3% Endorsed Crosbie
Peter Pocklington 102 3.4% Endorsed Mulroney
John A. Gamble 17 0.6% Endorsed Mulroney
Neil Fraser 5 0.2% Endorsed Mulroney
Total 2,988 100.0% 2,954 100.0% 2,952 100.0% 2,909 100.0%
  • Percentages are rounded, so they may not equal 100%.


The two party conventions in 1983 were very divisive for the PC Party as they set those loyal to the party's leader against those who believed that change was necessary for the party to win. However, these divisions were pushed aside by the euphoria over Mulroney's massive victory in the 1984 election. Crosbie, Clark, Wilson, and Crombie all gained prominent cabinet positions in Mulroney's government, which would adopt Crosbie's continentalist platform. To the surprise of many in the media, the party's caucus remained united throughout Mulroney's tenure despite sometimes dismal poll numbers and tensions created by the formation of the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois.

Works Consulted

See also

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