Progressive Conservative leadership convention, 1983

Progressive Conservative leadership convention, 1983

Canadian politics/leadership race
party = Progressive Conservative
year = 1983

date = June 11, 1983
location = Ottawa, Ontario
winner = Brian Mulroney
replaces = Joe Clark
numcands = 7
entryfee = C$?

The 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership convention was held on June 11 1983 in Ottawa, Ontario to elect a leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. The convention became necessary when Joe Clark, who had been leader of the party since the party's 1976 leadership convention, resigned following a vote in which only 66.9% of the party supporting his leadership. At the convention, Brian Mulroney was elected leader of the PC Party on the fourth ballot.


At a national convention of the party in Winnipeg in January 1983, 66.9% of the delegates voted against, and 33.1% voted for, a review of Clark's leadership. Many delegates believed that Clark, who had been prime minister of a minority government from June 1979 to February 1980, but who had lost the 1980 election, would be unable to lead the party to victory again. Clark stated that this result indicated that he needed to seek a renewed mandate from the membership through a leadership convention.

At the party's 1981 convention, 33.5% of delegated had supported a leadership review. The fact that in the intervening period, Clark had been unable to increase his support among party members by more than 0.5%, was likely a contributing factor to his decision to resign as leader. This was also considering that the governing Liberals under Pierre Trudeau were slipping in polls -- although the PCs had built up a substantial lead in popularity, Trudeau was expected to retire before the election and a new Liberal leader might be able to pull off a victory.

* "For detailed results, see Progressive Conservative leadership conventions


Joe Clark was supported largely by the more centrist elements of the party and some Red Tories, along with other party members who were opposed to the public attacks on the party leader by others in the party.

Brian Mulroney, who had lost to Clark at the 1976 leadership convention, was the early front-runner to replace Clark. As a businessperson, Mulroney attracted much of the party's right wing who were opposed to the continued leadership of Clark, although he ran to the left of John Crosbie. They considered Clark to be too progressive. Mulroney also attracted party members who believed that the fluently bilingual Quebecer would enable the party to break the Liberal Party's stranglehold on Quebec seats in the House of Commons.

John Crosbie, who had been Clark's Minister of Finance in 1979, was also an attractive candidate for the party's right wing, and attempted to distinguish himself by adopting what he called a continentalist platform, i.e., free trade with the United States of America. Crosbie, an accomplished debater, and known for his sense of humour, ran a strong campaign, but was hobbled by his inability to speak French, and by a political base concentrated in the small province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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

David Crombie, the former mayor of Toronto, and another minister in Clark's cabinet, attracted Red Tories who opposed Clark's leadership. Crombie was the only candidate to openly identify himself as a "Red Tory." Peter Newman said at the convention, "He was a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Peter Pocklington, a mercurial and controversial Alberta businessperson ran a campaign based on strict adherence to the principles of free enterprise, with most of his focus on a flat tax.

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 out-spoken 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 ran against the implementation of the metric system in Canada, based on the slogan, "Your freedom to measure is a measure of your freedom". Fraser didn't mount much of a campaign, was only seen by himself through the convention, and had to be dragged off stage from his nationally televised speech that accused the Liberals of deliberately favouring Quebec over English Canada. Lise Bissonnette commented that if the speech had been heard on Radio-Canada, it would set the Tories back 10 years.

The campaign

Clark already had most of a campaign team up and running by the time of his calling the leadership convention, as he had mobilized support to help gain in the convention's leadership review. Mulroney and Crosbie had been laying the ground work for a campaign for some time, with Crosbie expecting Clark to lose or resign soon, and Mulroney supportive of the anti-Clark movement. Much of the campaign's early months were overshadowed by Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, both of whom commanded great respect in the party, and who would have easily been front runners had they chosen to run. Both declined, giving Crombie and Wilson some hope in Ontario for recruiting members of Davis's "Big Blue Machine." Lougheed would attract criticism in outside of Alberta for inviting candidates for interviews with the Alberta PC Caucus, which was referred to by candidates as an "inquisition" and seen as using government resources for an internal election.

Media coverage emphasized the pro-business and neo-liberal bent of most of the candidates as a "Changing of the Guard" within the PC party from their more classical conservative and moderate elements. This allowed the Clark campaign to try polarize the election between right wingers and a centrist who had been able to win before. The Mulroney campaign responded by continuing their pro-business line, but attacking Crosbie's proposal for a free trade agreement 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, which would eventually help turn the party's platform into a pro free trade one by 1987.

The campaign was one of the most bitter in Canadian history, and some of the battles for delegates would become arguments against the delegated leadership convention. Quebec riding associations were especially fierce: delegates were called by rival camps with false meeting information, children were recruited by the Clark and Mulroney camps, and as the icing on the cake, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report showed a bus full of obviously intoxicated men traveling to vote for Mulroney (One man on the bus said he was voting to "Get rid of Levesque"). A meeting between the eight candidates would set stricter rules, but this occurred after the crucial Quebec contests had been decided. The Clark and Mulroney camps roughly split the province's delegates evenly, which was seen as a victory for the Clark side.

Crosbie was seen as a dark horse in the race. Some Crosbie delegates wore buttons that had Clark and Mulroney as fighting hares, with Crosbie as a tortoise sneaking by. Crosbie 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 the rejected was a Newfoundland Flight school. Crosbie's campaign hit a major snag, however, when he snapped at a news reporter for again making an issue of his not being bilingual, comparing it to him not speaking German meaning he disliked Germans.

Pocklington's campaign was hampered by the fact that his Edmonton Oilers were in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This prompted many trips to Long Island, and he missed several meetings with delegates. He was embarrassingly confronted by the Mayor of Belleville, Ontario on the convention floor for missing a meeting.

Convention strategy

Controversy erupted 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. While Mulroney denied the meeting repeatedly, the other candidates' campaigns admitted to the meeting.

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 caucus, that would bring the left-leaning Crombie and Clark-loyalist Wilson to his side, and convince delegates that he could win a majority government in the next election.

Mulroney's strategy remained mobilizing anti-Clark sentiment around himself: However, over enthusiastic aides had annoyed some of the other candidates with assumptions of support, leaving some question marks over the minor candidates.

Crosby 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

An interesting incident occurred when Crosbie was introduced, as his rented mini-Blimp failed to work properly. The blimp may have been a blessing: most delegates were watching it when Crosbie made a wrong turn on his grand entrance. Pocklington 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 Frasier all supported Mulroney after the first ballot, with Frasier 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, however Crosbie's unilingualism, lack of support in Quebec, and more right-wing economics did not appeal to most of Clark's delegates and Clark refused to make this move.

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. According to Crosbie's memoirs, he proposed that Clark withdraw in an effort to elect Crosbie in place of Mulroney. Clark refused and Crosbie was eliminated. He not endorse either remaining candidate. The conventional wisdom played out, with Mulroney being elected on the fourth ballot and declared the winner.

Political commentators have said that of the three possible two-man ballots among the front runners, Clark could have defeated Crosbie while Crosbie could have defeated Mulroney. Mulroney won because he faced Clark in the decisive fourth ballot.

*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. While these divisions were pushed aside by the euphoria over Mulroney's massive victory in the 1984 election, the divisions lingered for many years. Crosbie, Clark, Wilson, and Crombie all gained prominent cabinet positions in Mulroney's government.

ee also

*Progressive Conservative leadership conventions

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