Joe, Pierre, and Stephen in Healey’s 1979

When I was writing about the Danish television series Borgen, I looked up the list of Danish Prime Ministers and discovered that several served very long terms, several served very short terms, and several served more than one non-consecutive term. If you look at the list of Canada’s 23 prime ministers, you see the same thing. Aside from those who have served long terms, are well known, and whose faces appear on the currency, eight have served short terms, three in the last four decades (Clark, Turner, and Campbell), and four have served non-consecutive terms (John A. Macdonald, Arthur Meighen, Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau).

The short-termers are all stories of political failure, politicians who did not have what it takes to keep the confidence of Parliament or the support of the electorate. Michael Healey’s 2017 play 1979 is the story of one such political failure, the eight-month government of Joe Clark.

In addition to the intrinsic interest of a story of failure, in retrospect the Clark Government represented a (re)turning point, because his government’s defeat allowed Pierre Trudeau to form his fourth government, and Trudeau’s most consequential achievements – the No side’s victory in the 1980 Quebec referendum and the 1982 patriation of the Constitution – occurred in that government.

At this point, a major personal disclosure is in order. In 1975-76, fresh out of graduate school, I served as Director of Policy, or some such title, for Joe Clark’s successful campaign for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership. This turned out to be the only lapse in my lifelong commitment to liberal ideas and the Liberal Party of Canada. But, impressed by Clark’s pragmatism and willingness to listen, I would not call this episode a youthful indiscretion. I will therefore bring my own “Joe Clark experience” to this discussion of Healey’s play.

All the events of Healey’s play unfold on Thursday, December 13, 1979, the day the Clark Government’s budget is defeated, leading Clark to ask Governor-General Ed Schreyer to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Clark’s failings as a political leader are presented in a set of imagined conversations with other political players. Clark admits to Finance Minister John Crosbie that the Conservatives have done no public opinion polling all fall. He refuses External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald urging that he delay the budget vote until all Conservative MPs can be brought to Ottawa and a deal made with the Creditistes. And he continues to refuse delaying the vote when his wife Maureen McTeer demands it. Brian Mulroney, whom Clark defeated for the leadership, beseeches Clark to make two hundred patronage appointments before the government falls, and Clark refuses him too.

Pierre Trudeau visits, realizes how politically inflexible and maladroit Clark is, and concludes that he must renege on his retirement and defeat Clark. Trudeau believes that he alone can save the country in the Quebec referendum to be held the following year.

In the most creative confrontation of the play, a precocious twenty-year old messenger boy named Stephen Harper has an opportunity to speak with Clark. He begins with the deference he knows he should show an adult in a position of authority, but soon his true political sentiments and analysis emerge. Speaking from the standpoint of his own life in politics decades later, he upbraids Clark for not practicing the hard-line conservative politics of Margaret Thatcher, first elected Prime Minister three weeks before Clark. Harper urges an uncomprehending Clark to enact policies that will build his base, because “you’re hired to lead, to pursue your agenda.” The young Harper writes Clark’s political obituary: “history will say you were weak-willed and incompetent.”

Despite having all the other characters in the play point out Clark’s failings, Healey includes an imagined act of alertness and good judgment on Clark’s part. At the same time as the budget debate, six American diplomats were hiding in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Tehran, and the Canadian and US governments make secret plans to extract them. Clark and External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald were managing this top-secret and deeply-sensitive file. Key to the plans to extract the diplomats were forged Canadian passports. The CIA forgers stamped onto the passports visas that used the western rather than Persian calendar. Clark catches the error. In fact, this error occurred but it was caught by Roger Lucy, a Canadian diplomat in Tehran.

What this misattribution suggests to me is that Healey didn’t want to make Clark a complete fool. For the play to be tragedy, rather than satire, Clark had to have some redeeming virtues, to have had some qualifications for the position of Prime Minister.

Had Healey dug deeper historically, he could have presented a truer, and hence more tragic portrait of Joe Clark. Healey mentions but does not explore the fact that Clark had positioned himself in an eleven-candidate leadership convention in 1976 as the second choice for the supporters of every other candidate. As one involved in that campaign, I can say that this required considerable intellectual flexibility and personal empathy on Clark’s part. And in the federal election three years later, Clark positioned himself as a credible alternative to Pierre Trudeau. Had Healey presented a truer picture of Clark’s political strengths, he wouldn’t have to concoct the implausible scenario of Clark identifying the erroneous visas.

Joe Clark’s failure as Prime Minister, paradoxically, had its roots in his success as leadership candidate and opposition leader. He tried to overcome an image of unprincipled flexibility by being foolishly principled and inappropriate inflexible about the 1979 budget. That is the essence of Joe Clark’s tragedy, and it is unfortunate that Healey doesn’t explore it.

With Canadian stages now empty, I would encourage Healey to revise his play to make this critical point. I’m not saying that he should excise other weaknesses of Clark’s, such as his ungainly body language and occasionally exaggerated rhetoric, which he captures brilliantly. But he should include more of the tragedy of Clark’s story in addition to its satirical component. Lastly, and this is perhaps a quibble, he should find a title that gives the audience a clearer foretaste of what the play is about.

In retrospect, the 1979 federal election was a major turning point in Canadian history. It is important for our self-understanding to have a work of popular culture that attempts to explain the implausible parliamentary events that led to that turning point. I congratulate Michael Healey for tackling it so creatively and encourage him to rethink and in part rewrite his portrait of his protagonist.

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