[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2001-04Fr -- Conservatives of Different Feathers
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Conservatives of Different Feathers.

January 26, 2001.

Way back in Sunday Newsletter 2000-03Su, sometime in July 2000, I listed all of the prime ministers of Canada and their party affiliations. At the time I also wanted to explain the subtle nuances between the different Conservative parties (Conservative, Conservative/Union and Progressive Conservative) but I wasn't able to perform the necessary research at the time. Well, Mike has beaten me to the punch and goes into some detail below.


Conservatives of Different Feathers
By Michael Hora (mike@factscanada.ca)

In 1844 in Coningsby, England, Benjamin Disraeli, a future Conservative prime minister of Britain, described Conservatism as "an unhappy cross-breed; the mule of politics that engenders nothing." He wrote this when "Conservative" was first appearing as a party designation, a shift intended to broaden the Tory Party's appeal. It is interesting to note that spin-doctors preceded our times by a goodly margin. They are, after all, not only a product of this jaded political time. In Canada, as in Britain, Toryism's mid-19th century, anti-democratic values were difficult to maintain when the electoral franchise was continually expanding. In other words, the party discovered that they actually had to keep some of the promises they were making in order to maintain a power base.

The Conservative Party in Canada embraced British Tory traditions, but other strains flowed into it. This may well be when politicos discovered that shit does indeed flow downhill. Indeed, the ancestor of the modern Progressive Conservative Party can be discovered, or uncovered if you would believe some historians' takes on the matter, in the 1854 Liberal-Conservative coalition government of the Province of Canada.

Sir John A.: What he left a country

Sir John A. Macdonald entered the 1854 coalition as a moderate Conservative and it was he who eventually shaped the Liberal-Conservative Party, which was dominant at Confederation. They were dominant in much the same fashion as a fishwife later came to be known -- they were not held in great esteem. Cronyism became a by-word at the time. As Canada's first prime minister, Macdonald constructed a party that emphasized the commitment to Confederation and a policy of national economic development they were assumed to be in favour of. In actuality, and as borne out by later historians, the favouritism shown by the inner circle may have made the railroads cross the country, but also contributed to the near ruin of the nascent confederation. The party's name symbolized Macdonald's own commitment to equilibrium and moderation, to an emphasis on what Canadians held in common, and to an obscuring of those matters where they divided. He managed to combine "ultramontane" Roman Catholics from Quebec, Tories, Orangemen and businessmen in all four founding provinces, and build a consensus. The manner in which he did this was a subject of debate. The cries of bully rang out in the young Parliament of Upper Canada as he was accused of ramming and railroading certain measures to get his way. Rejecting "abstract debate" he emphasized personality, patronage and compromise; but by 1872 the many parts of the expanding nation had become too different to patch together. In 1872 he won 103 seats to 97 for the opposition Liberals. The majority did not hold; in November 1873 his government fell.

The Pacific Scandal, which brought down Macdonald's government, indicated the problems of his approach. His involvement in the pay-back scheme that enriched his political masters fell in on him like a house of cards. The leading newspapers of the day had a grand old time roasting his bones over the bonfires of public sentiment. He never knew what hit him. The Pacific railway, essential to his nation-building dream, and other similar developmental policies, linked the government too closely with private interests which did not always serve the public interest. He was tarred by the same brush. In opposition Macdonald seems to have become convinced that his party should represent something more than simply support of Canada. By then the party had largely dropped the Liberal-Conservative label in favour of the simple term "Conservative". In the 1878 election campaign Macdonald committed his party to the national policy and the new name, and emphasized "protectionism", expansion in the West and an assertive central government. This appealed to Ontario and Quebec manufacturers and to those who feared the US following its rejection of free trade and reciprocity. This was an era that had "Tip a Canoe and Tyler Too" as a motto. (Tyler, a US moderate, was not favoured by the electorate.) A strong pro-British message was added, its effectiveness proven by Macdonald's re-election campaigns in 1882, 1887 and again in 1891.

Macdonald complemented the National Policy with shrewd and lavish patronage and a willingness to compromise, although compromise evaded him in the case of Louis Reil after the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Riel's execution, along with the weak leadership displayed among some Quebec Conservatives, led to a decline in his support there, from 48 seats in 1882 to a low of 30 in 1891. Macdonald's reaction to the Riel affair followed logically from his centralist perspective, which kept provinces and local interests in the background. Although all of the major figures of the day roundly condemned Riel, the opportunistic opposition parties saw a window to get at the ruling Conservatives through what they portrayed as his heavy-handed handling of the affair. The result was that the provinces became increasingly Liberal, and supported the provincial rights stand of Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. After Macdonald's death in 1891, his party could not endure attacks on so many fronts. The Conservative governments of John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell and Charles Tupper struggled to maintain supremacy, but language and religious problems and patronage problems in Quebec were great obstacles. These now familiar obstacles were a thorn in the sides of the English majorities even then. The Conservatives lost the 1896 election and for many years did not regain their pre-eminence. Their greatest moment, and indeed the greatest majority of any government, came at the hands of the Mulroney regime. The same one that also secured their greatest fall from grace.

Borden: More than the name of an army base

Nova Scotia lawyer Robert Borden, Conservative leader from 1901 to 1920, sought to expand the Macdonald legacy. He experimented with a Quebec lieutenant, flirted with American progressivism and advocated civil service reform and public ownership. He lost the elections of 1904 and 1908. To win in 1911, Borden emphasized the National Policy and the imperial connection, winning support in Ontario, BC and part of the Maritimes. This tried and true formula, later adopted by successive regimes, was in its infancy in Canada, although a hallmark in the mother country, England. Under the monarchist regimes there, it was developed to combat the growing unrest in the troubled areas, Ireland and Scotland.

In Quebec the Conservatives allied themselves with anti-Laurier nationalists who were seduced by Borden's promise of a referendum on naval assistance to Great Britain. The Conservatives won the election, but the imperialist-nationalist coalition collapsed. By 1913 nationalists in his caucus were bitterly disillusioned with Borden's siding with the more numerous imperialists. World War One extended Borden's mandate, but in 1917 an election could be postponed no longer.

The December 1917 election was critical for Canadian conservatism. To ensure that his conscription policy was upheld, Borden made an alliance with conscriptionist Liberals. The resulting union government triumphed, but the victory created lasting resentment among French-Canadians and immigrants, especially German-Canadians. The aftermath, as the resentment of the Quebecois grew, stayed with Canadians. It is evinced today and even the "Van Doos", a crack French-Canadian armed forces regiment, sits hard in its legacy. Liberals soon deserted the coalition, leaving the Conservative Party with a narrower base than ever before. Moreover, nationalization of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern railways caused the defection of the Montreal business community, probably the party's greatest source of funds.

Meighen: Briefly important

Arthur Meighen, Borden's successor, immediately tried to shape the remnants of Unionism into Conservatism. In the 1921 election the Conservatives finished third with 50 seats, behind the Progressive Party's 65 and the Liberal's 116. Meighen's support of conscription (we now call it the draft) meant the loss of Francophone support. This is a shameful period of history and the accusations rang across the federation like cannonading shots of reverberating hypocrisy. In western Canada, Progressives identified more readily with Liberals since they associated Conservatives with the despised National Policy. Meighen served briefly as prime minister in 1926, but a Liberal majority soon returned. Conservatives were too closely linked with Britain during a time that saw Canada's "Britishness" rapidly disappearing. Nor did Meighen manage to adapt the National Policy to post-war economic conditions. His inept and maladroit government never recovered.

R.B. Bennett: Withering on the vine

In 1927 R.B. Bennett, a wealthy Calgary businessman, succeeded Meighen and in 1930 won a majority, taking 25 Quebec seats. The Great Depression created the climate for Bennett's victory; it also assured his defeat five years later. During his brief tenure the butt buddy of the rich actually did Canada one great favour -- it was on his watch that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was created. It actually came about as a result of shrewd people playing on his fears of the giant to the south. The US was his personal bugaboo. Bennett's initial response to the depression was a characteristically Conservative attempt to protect industry and to obtain imperial preference. It did not work. In 1935 Bennett called for many social reforms, but these proposals came far too late to be convincing. By this time he was viewed as, and rightly so, a bungling and inept friend to only the influential. Barry Broadfoot, in his book "Ten Lost Years", chronicled the lives of ordinary Canadians during the Dirty Thirties and poor ol' Bennett fared poorly in the telling. Many Reformist Conservatives had already left to join the Reconstruction Party founded by former Bennett minister H.H. Stevens. Moreover, two new parties, Social Credit and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), were showing a broad-based support and appealed to areas of English Canada. The 1935 election witnessed the worst Conservative defeat to the time; they took only 40 seats against the Liberal's 173.

Thereafter the Conservatives struggled to rebuild a successful coalition. The enmity of French Canada endured, even though in 1938 the party chose Robert J. Manion (who had opposed conscription, was Catholic and had married a French Canadian) as its leader. His attempts to conciliate Quebec only angered numerous colleagues (sound familiar?) once World War Two began. Party funds were depleted, and party organization had atrophied. In 1940 the Conservatives again won only 40 seats. Manion's defeat turned the party back towards Arthur Meighen, who shunned compromises and to many Conservatives appeared to be the Canadian Churchill. Canada, however, was not Britain, and Meighen lost a February 1942 by-election.

From the ashes

Encouraged by Meighen, Manitoba Premier John Bracken, a Progressive with no Conservative experience, sought and won the 1942 leadership, and the party's name was changed to the Progressive Conservative Party. It was attempting to turn left to place itself on the path of war time reform sentiment. However, both the CCF and the Liberals were also moving left. In 1944 the Conservatives were caught up again in the pro-conscription movement. Although the Liberals brought in conscription, the Conservatives' enthusiasm for the process ensured that they would forever more bear the blame. In the 1945 election, they could not even find candidates for most Quebec ridings. Elsewhere conscription, largely forgotten when the war ended, faded away. The PCs came fourth on the Prairies, behind the CCF, the Liberals and the populist Social Credit. They were led by a fellow named Ernest Manning -- he who begat one Preston. Hmmm.

Dief the Chief: How I ruined the Bank of Canada and took down the dollar

The Conservatives were becoming an Ontario party, as indicated by the 1948 choice of Ontario Premier George Drew as leader. Drew, unable to escape the Ontario mantle, suffered two disastrous defeats, in 1949 and again in 1953. The party decided to gamble on a relative unknown, John Diefenbaker, a westerner, a populist and a remarkable showman. Diefenbaker offered both fiery leadership and a visionary program. He excited Canadians, lulled by two decades of Liberal administration. In 1957 he won a minority, and in 1958 he astonished Canadians by winning 208 out of 265 seats, including fifty from Quebec. For the first time since 1911 the Conservatives were truly a national party. The part was short-lived. This was the guy who caved in on the Avro Arrow and literally every important foreign affairs decision thereafter.

The Conservative platform appeared to have more substance than it had. Despite strong Quebec support, Diefenbaker could not come to terms with Canada's bicultural nature. His policy initiatives seemed eclectic rather than parts of a larger vision. In 1962 Diefenbaker lost his majority, and in 1963 his government collapsed and the Liberals won the subsequent election. Diefenbaker's populism had lost much business support and now lacked urban support generally. French Canada once again shunned the Conservatives. Diefenbaker, however, retained strong support in the West and in pockets elsewhere. His removal as leader in September 1967 damaged party unity, and his successor, Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield, felt the wounds. The largely un-charismatic Stanfield, a very strong parliamentarian, suffered from his perceived lack of ability to lead. One of the Canadian electorate's fatal mistakes.

Diefenbaker's legacy was strong Conservative support in western Canada and what came to be called the "dieffydollar". Other successes in the 1960s and 1970s occurred provincially, especially in Ontario, where the Conservatives maintained a regime from 1943 to 1985. By 1979, Conservatives governed in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, PEI and New Brunswick. However, Stanfield was unable to lead the federal party to power, and in February 1976 Joe Clark, an Albertan, became its leader. In May 1979 the Conservatives under Clark formed a minority government, but they were defeated in the House in December and Clark became known as a numerically challenged Tory. He lost the House by failing to muster the requisite amount of votes needed, and lost the subsequent February 1980 election.

The defeat of the Conservatives in 1980 brought Joe Clark's leadership into question. In 1983 the party rejected Clark and chose the bilingual Quebecer Brian Mulroney as its leader. The boy from Bai Comeau was a mover. He and his ruthless style were fresh off of decimating the employees of Iron Ore Corporation and with blood fresh in his nostrils he was ready for more. Although Mulroney lacked any parliamentary experience, he possessed superb organizational skills and a deep knowledge of his native province. The party, so often fractious, united behind the new leader as he faced Pierre Trudeau's successor, John Turner, in the federal election of September 1984. Mulroney took the western base of the party and fused it with a renewed support among Quebecers who were disillusioned with Trudeau's federalism. The presence of such notable Quebec nationalists such as Lucien Bouchard was an indication that this was a perhaps uneasy coalition. The smooth and fluently bilingual Irish charmer was able to pull it off though.

Despite being plagued by ministerial resignations and scandals, the Mulroney Conservatives implemented much of its business agenda, privatizing crown corporations and arranging a "free trade" deal with the United States. The election mandate that saw him pull that one off was impressive to say the least -- the largest mandate ever. Nevertheless, the failure to achieve its goal of a new federalism through constitutional negotiations, and an inability to reduce the public debt or to raise Canada out of a persistent recession eroded the party's support in its second term. The Free Trade deal did not produce the jobs and prosperity that Mulroney had promised. In Ontario the perception was widespread that the deal had actually cost many jobs. Western disaffection rose over the delay of the Mulroney government in scrapping the hated National Energy Policy, the decision to award a lucrative defence contract to Montreal instead of Winnipeg, and lingering animosity over the implementation of the GST. Mulroney's personal popularity fell to lower levels than that of any previous prime minister ever.

In 1993 the Mulroney coalition disintegrated under Kim Campbell, who was unable to distance herself from the Mulroney regime's inner rot. Quebec supporters turned to Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Quebecois, and Western supporters turned to the Reform Party. The election resulted in the most devastating defeat in the history of Canadian politics. The party's 154 seats evaporated. Only former leadership aspirant Jean Charest and Saint John, New Brunswick, Mayor Elsie Wayne managed to win seats for the party. The Conservative Party lost its official status as a political party and faced a financial as well as a political crisis. Mulroney himself, though accused of much, managed to come out smelling like a rose and even managing to make a few million from damages awarded him against his old foe, Jean Chretien.



On Sunday I announce the winner of our latest contest, tell you a bit about the life and times of Sarah McLachlan, suggest at least one other use for a pumpkin, take a look at the national population trend, tell you something about Canada's astronauts (all ten of them), profile Manilla, Ontario, discuss some medical terminology, and give you a great recipe for baked garden pasta.


As you can see, the more time goes by, the less the times change. What was once known then as this, turns out to be today's that. And, of course, we all knew that. Didn't we?



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