Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983

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Progressive Conservative leadership election, 1983
Mulroney 1983.jpg
Date June 11, 1983
Convention Ottawa, Ontario
Resigning leader Joe Clark
Won by Brian Mulroney
Ballots 4
Candidates 7
Entrance Fee C$?
Spending limit None

Progressive Conservative leadership conventions
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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.


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 Progressive Conservatives to victory in the 1979 federal election, a divisive austerity budget and Clark's perceived misjudgment of the vote count on a resulting motion of no confidence resulted in the government falling. The Conservatives lost the subsequent 1980 federal election, and found themselves returned to opposition.

After the election, voices within the party openly called for Clark's ouster. While some focused on Clark's skills or personality, others maintained that he and his 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 1981 convention, 33.5% of delegates supported a leadership review.

At a national convention of the party 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.

During Clark's term as leader, 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 largely by the more centrist elements of the party, some Red Tories, and other party members who were opposed to the public attacks on him in years previous. Clark at this point was fluently bilingual, and was making inroads into Quebec, traditionally the weakest Tory province.

Brian Mulroney, who had lost to Clark at the 1976 leadership convention, was the early front-runner to replace Clark. As former head of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Mulroney attracted much of the party's more pro-business faction. 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 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. 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 ran against the implementation of the metric system in Canada. Fraser didn't mount any real 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 have set the Tories' Quebec efforts back 10 years.

The campaign[edit]

John Crosbie on the floor of the 1983 leadership convention.

Each Federal riding was permitted to elect 6 delegates to the convention, 2 of which had to be youth delegates. Student associations were also able to send youth delegates. PC MPs, MLAs, and higher ups were permitted to be ex officio delegates.

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 delegates in the previous convention's leadership review. 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.

Much of the campaign's early months were overshadowed by speculation surrounding Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, both of whom commanded great respect in the party, and who would have easily been the front runner had they chosen to run. Both men would eventually decline, giving Crombie and Wilson some hope in Ontario for recruiting members of Davis's "Big Blue Machine." Lougheed would attract criticism from outside of Alberta for inviting leadership candidates for interviews with the Alberta PC Caucus, which 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. 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 previously defeat the Liberals. 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, the culmination of years of ideological and backroom conflicts within the party during Clark's leadership, was one of the most bitter in Canadian history. 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 most infamously, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report showed a bus full of obviously intoxicated men traveling to vote for Mulroney, with one man on the bus saying 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 strategic victory for the Clark side.

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 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 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.

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 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.

Convention strategy[edit]

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, and convince other 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.

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[edit]

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 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.

Delegate support by ballot
Candidate 1st ballot 2nd ballot 3rd ballot 4th ballot
Votes cast  % Votes cast  % Votes cast  % Votes cast  %
Joe Clark 1976.jpg Joe Clark 1,091 36.5% 1,085 36.7% 1,058 35.8% 1,325 45.6%
Mulroney.jpg Brian Mulroney 874 29.2% 1,021 34.6% 1,036 35.1% 1,584 54.5%
Crosbie 1983-2 crop.jpg John Crosbie 639 21.4% 781 26.4% 858 29.1% Did not endorse
Diplomat Michael Wilson.png Michael Wilson 144 4.8% Endorsed Mulroney
Crombie1983.jpg 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. 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.

See also[edit]