PHOTOS: Andrew Scheer … I mean Joe Clark, a then-almost-unknown MP from Alberta, celebrates his victory in the Tory party leadership contest with his wife, Maureen McTeer, on Feb. 22, 1976. (Photo: Toronto Public Library.) The real Andrew Scheer, seen below, an almost-unknown MP from Saskatchewan, was doing the same thing this evening after a leadership convention that was considerably less interesting and lacking in drama because of the really weird way it was organized. (Photo: Marcos Oliveira, Wikimedia Commons). Below him, Kellie Leitch, Pierre Trudeau and Maxime Bernier, grabbed from the Internet.

Who knew? It’s 1976 all over again! Joe Who? … I mean, Andrew Who?

I feel good about this … 1976 was a pretty good year, as I dimly recall. (You know what they say: If you remember it clearly, you weren’t there.)

On Feb. 22, 1976, after four ballots, members of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada elected this 36-year-old MP from Alberta named Joe Clark. He beat Claude Wagner, the front-running candidate from Quebec who as a tough-on-crime hard-ass appealed to the Tory Party’s right wing.

Basically, nobody had any idea who Mr. Clark was, and, in those days, there was no Google, so you really had to scramble to put a story together in time for deadline. The headline on the Toronto Star the next day famously read: JOE WHO?

Dear readers, do you see a pattern emerging here?

This evening the slightly re-named and considerably reconstituted Conservative Party of Canada announced the selection of a new leader, a 38-year-old MP from Saskatchewan named Andrew Scheer. He beat Maxime Bernier, the front-running candidate from Quebec who as a market-fundamentalist fruitcake appealed to the Tory party’s right wing.

Basically, nobody has any idea who Mr. Scheer is, but now we have Google, so no one who needs to find out has to go bothering the librarians in some mouldy old newspaper morgue.

Mr. Scheer is a social conservative – a favourite of opponents of reproductive rights, although not the favourite. (That was Brad Trost, also a Saskatchewan MP.)

He’s no environmentalist – indeed, he’s death on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax. He once praised loony right Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as “strong conservative voices” – so I suppose there’s a hint there about his economic views.

But he’s not quite as nutty on the economic file as Mr. Bernier, doesn’t have a TV reality show like contest quitter Kevin O’Leary and doesn’t appear to be a divisive bigot like candidate Kellie Leitch. And unlike would-be tough guy Steven Blaney, the apple-cheeked victor doesn’t actually look scary enough to make small children cry.

Don’t worry, we’ll know a lot more about Mr. Scheer in a few hours – the mainstream media is already spinning him as a sure-fire Trudeau beater, which is worth a muted chuckle. That he won’t be as easy to defeat as Mr. Bernier doesn’t mean he won’t be easy for Mr. Trudeau to defeat, I’m afraid, unless the NDP can come up with a stronger leadership candidate some time in the next 38 days. Like Mr. Clark, Mr. Scheer has all the charisma of a wet dishcloth.

That said, being a compromise candidate has worked for Mr. Scheer once before – he was elected as Speaker of the House of Commons in 2011, the youngest person ever to hold that job, and served there until the October 2015 election that sent Stephen Harper’s Conservatives packing. So … who knows?

Apparently it took 13 ballots to come to this conclusion, but the process the Conservatives used to calculate their votes was so complicated and convoluted it stripped Saturday’s convention of all of the drama and most of the suspense normally associated with such events.

One thing’s for sure, Canadians were not glued to their TV sets yesterday. Only the National Post’s correspondent – who described the boring process as “nail biting” – seemed to have been affected. A manicure is recommended as therapy.

The nation is grateful that the yearlong Tory leadership race is over, though, and Canadians from coast to coast to coast can at last say … “Huh?”

Mr. Clark turned out to be a nebbish – that is, from the Yiddish, “a person, especially a man, who is regarded as pitifully ineffectual, timid, or submissive.” He became prime minister on June 4 of 1979, but his Tories fell six seats short of a majority.

Is Mr. Scheer a nebbish too? To be fair, we should probably reserve judgment for a little while. (Mr. Clark could actually be pretty sharp tongued. He once quipped: “A recession is when your neighbour loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Pierre Trudeau loses his job.” Mr. Scheer’s version, considerably lamer: “Sunny ways don’t pay the bills.”)

Mr. Clark sprang from the “Red Tory” wing of the old PC Party of Canada. The Tory party right wing is considerably further right now than it was in 1976, which means the centre – whence, we are sure to be given the impression Mr. Scheer has sprung – is considerably further to the right as well. Indeed, since Mr. Harper got done with the party, there really are no Red Tories in it any more. The Canadian electorate, meanwhile, has for the most part remained stubbornly in the middle.

Mr. Clark bumbled along as leader of the Opposition until the election of 1979, and then foolishly decided to govern as if he had a majority. He refused to grant the Social Credit Party, which had six seats and might have supported him, official party status. Accordingly, Mr. Clark’s government was defeated on a motion of non-confidence on Dec. 13, 1979.

Bitterly, some of the government’s supporters accused Mr. Clark of not being able to do the math – something that is apparently a chronic problem for Alberta Conservatives.

In the 1980 election, Mr. Clark was defeated by the prime minister he had defeated, Pierre Trudeau. Conservative supporters saw this as a tragedy.

It remains to be seen if Karl Marx was right and this time history will be repeated under Mr. Scheer … as farce.

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  1. Superb column. The intricacies of the Conservative voting system were beyond the capabilities of many reporters to reveal, and many got it plain wrong. I went to the CPC website several times to refresh my memory after things just didn’t add up as reported by the usual mindless gushers on roving mics. The media put it all in a spin about a race, when the result was known as soon as the votes were entered in the program adding them up. Nobody changed their minds or replaced their votes in the 13th ballot- they had already voted and ranked their choices

    Looking at these bunch of abject losers including O’Leary fulminating generally incorrectly on CBC and plainly merely trying to burnish his personal “brand” which rates a big fat zero for me personally, one wonders how many have had a clear socially intellectual thought in their lifetimes beyond fulminating petty hatreds at every opportunity. Social conservatives? The modern world has passed them by, confused them and led them to nowheresville, along with 35% or so of Canadians either too lazy to think, to offer any generosity to others with a different worldview or circumstance, and/or often blinkered by “Christian” religious sects flapping the Bible in the breeze with only their interpretation of it allowed.

    These people seek social strictures and structures of about 1895, when everyone “knew their place” and “followed the rules”. A useless outlook for today, co-opted by some who see it all as a way to lower taxes on “business” as if it were some truism demanded by society when it is utter BS disguised as mantra. The excuse for cutting social programs laid at the door of rugged individualism to triumph over, a pet Ambrose philosophy she once again repeated in her goodbye speech. Conservatives are not people who even try to fathom the depths of despair some in our society have to face. Instead the unfortunate are remonstrated to pull their socks up and “act like a man” or “get a job”. So those bright enough or lucky enough to lead a fortunate economic life are thereby encouraged to look down their noses at people who haven’t “made” it like they have. A nihilistic selfish outlook, the old “I’m all right, Jack” routine.

    Summed up by people in Conservative policy charge labouring away at trying to justify the unjustifiable at various overfunded “Institutes” who have read a chapter or two of various economic texts, deliberately without getting the whole picture yet feeling obliged for their daily bread to work up a political screed on the misinformation thereby engendered or gerryandered, and an innate need to prevent other people from having a reasonable life or expressing their own true feelings – like the old biddies who reek of rank jealousy and harumph mindlessly away when they observe happy people. A pox on these “bought” people with few scruples, promoting nothing but a pro-business viewpoint.

    Maxime Bernier – “market fundamentalist fruitcake” – sums up one side of this hollow philosophy, if one can stretch a point in calling it philosophy at all. Social conservative nutbars like Trost and Leitch sum up the socially suspicious other side of the movement, the need to tell others how to behave. And Scheer appears to only have a real thought about anything now and then and is the brainless frat boy who likes to get along with the rest of his gormlessly empty-headed colleagues. He is without any plan to go forward, but then conservatism is the need to somehow bring us back to some non-existent good old days. What an utter waste of time the whole lot of them are!

  2. It took 13 rounds of ballot counting, under the single-transferable, preferential ballot system they used, before Mr Scheer could finally scrape together enough 8th, 9th & 10th choices to finally get a slim majority of just under 51% of the “points” assigned under the party’s voting system. I don’t know about you, but this is not the kind of resounding mandate Mr Scheer should be able to brag about. It was clear, though, even after the first count, that Mr Scheer’s share of the vote grew somewhat faster with each round than Mr Bernier’s. One might conclude that Mr Scheer was a more consensus candidate than Mr Bernier, if one forgot that it took him 13 rounds of counting to win.

    I wonder, now, with this contest over, whether the CBC, which gave the Cons a year & a half of wall-to-wall free coverage of the race, will do the NDP the same courtesy in covering its leadership contest?

  3. What is interesting is that the conservatives of the Joe Clark era have been abandoned by their party and wouldn’t recognize it today for it’s severe rightward shift (Clark, himself, refuses to support it). You can’t say that for the NDP or the Liberals. What surprises me is the Conservatives tone policy tone-deafness; in an era where neo-liberal nostrums are under attack (lower taxes, austerity, privatization), and social conservative policies against LGBTQ, abortion, marijuana and assisted dying are proven electoral failures, the Conservatives can only double-down.

  4. Some point soon, I expect some old PC to say something like “I knew Mr. Clark and Mr. Scheer is no Mr. Clark”. Yes, both were compromise candidates not well known outside the party and from the west. It is too early to say whether Mr. Scheer lacks also charisma or gravitas, but I am not getting a strong initial sense of either. However, Mr. Clark was definitely from the progressive wing of the PC party, which was the larger wing at the time. Mr. Clark was no social conservative and his economic views would probably be too moderate to be part of the Harper or Scheer Conservative party. I suspect Scheer may try the initial Harper strategy of trying to sound more moderate and reasonable than he really is.

    As a former speaker Scheer is quite experienced in Parliament, but so to was Mr. Clark an able Parliamentarian, except for being numerically challenged when he briefly had a minority government. Mr. Clark gave the impression of a modern, progressive leader even though he represented a rural riding. Mr. Scheer seems to have a hint of Diefenbaker nostalgia about him.

    As much as most of the Federal Conservatives dislike the Progressive part of the PC’s, it will be very difficult for them to get back to power without them. A nice smile helps a bit, but a right wing social conservative is still a right wing social conservative.

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