Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had been able to win a majority in 1974 after shifting tactics on the campaign trail, which had previously hurt him in 1972 when he won a minority government.
With several issues facing Canada including high gas prices, high unemployment, the poor economy and more, Trudeau would wait as long as possible to call an election until he reached the five-year limit in 1979.
Over the previous five years, Canada had gone through several changes. One of the largest was the move towards the metric system, which was heavily opposed by the Progressive Conservatives. Trudeau had also implemented the Anti-Inflation Act, which introduced wage and price controls, after he had mocked Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield for suggesting the same. The Olympics had been held in Canada for the first time in 1976, but Taiwan was barred from competing under pressure from China, which strained relations with the United States. As well, in Quebec, the Parti Quebecois was starting to rise putting fuel into the fire of separatism in Quebec. The country was also going through stagflation, with both inflation and unemployment high. The budget deficit had also risen, from $676 million in 1974 to $11.8 billion in 1978.
In 1977, the Liberals were actually doing well. The country was not sure about the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives, and Trudeau and his wife Margaret had recently separated, which garnered him some sympathy among a few voters. With the rise of the Parti Quebecois, and the fear of separation, Trudeau was also seen as a leader who could hold Canada together.
When 1978 came along, many expected the election to be called but Trudeau delayed as inflation and unemployment numbers started to climb. In October 1978, 15 by-elections were called and the Liberals would suffer the worst by-election defeats since Confederation in the process. In Toronto alone, they lost all four ridings they held. The writing was on the wall.
On the Progressive Conservative side of things, they were led by a new man, the young and dynamic Joe Clark. Hailing from High River, Alberta, he was a surprise winner of the leadership race in 1976 and was so unknown he was often called Joe Who? By the media. The Progressive Conservatives saw him as the one to lead them to victory over Trudeau and the Liberals.
With only two months left in his mandate, Trudeau finally called an election.
The Progressive Conservatives would run on the slogan of Its Time For A Change-Give The Future A Chance and Lets Get Canada Working Again.
Within his own caucus, several right-wing members were not a fan of Clark and would often oppose him. In one case, Clark’s riding was merged with another during a redistribution and the other MP refused to step aside so Clark had to run in a totally different riding.
Dalton Camp would say of Clark, quote:
Stanfield, whom Clark worked for as an aide and speech writer, would say of Clark years earlier, quote:
“I considered him too highly strung and nervous to be a practicing politician. I thought he would probably return to Alberta eventually.”
Other issues prior to the election had many wondering if Clark had any chance of winning. During a tour of the Middle East to help broaden his foreign affairs experience, Clark’s luggage was lost and he seemed to be uncomfortable with issues discussed.
It was this that the Liberals latched onto, using the slogan of “This is No Time For On The Job Training” and “We need Tough Leadership To keep Canada Growing. A Leader Must Be A Leader.” Trudeau would routinely mock Clark as someone with ideas that were wrong, and in his opinion, silly. One example was a suggestion by Clark that those who smoked or had poor diets should pay higher health insurance premiums. Trudeau would state, quote:
“How is he going to police it? Is he going to send his Fat Squad or his Smoke Squad around to your house to check your ashtray and see 12 butts and say “oh your OHIP premiums are going up five bucks a month” or is he going to send some inspector to your door and if he finds you watching television or drinking beer or eating some greasy chips, up another $10 a month?”
Trudeau would also use the words of Diefenbaker himself against Clark at one point on the campaign. Diefenbaker had said, quote:
“Leadership is the most important thing in the country. Government can’t be put into the hands of any passing Joe.”
Trudeau would say that quote during a rally in North Battleford and add, quote:
“Now you know Mr. Diefenbaker, he’s been my critic but he does know something about the need for a strong government. When he says that kind of leadership shouldn’t be given to a passing Joe, I stand on his words.”
Diefenbaker would later deny the quote.
The Liberals would put Trudeau at the forefront of the campaign, portraying him as a gunslinger, standing alone, feet apart and thumbs hooked under his belt with no podium or speakers text, thinking on his feet. They also made national unity and energy the two main platforms of the campaign, even though both items ranked behind inflation and unemployment among Canadians for the election.
In fact, both parties would attempt to portray their leaders in a new light to appeal to voters. Peter Newman would write in April 1979, quote:
“There is a king of false deployment of forces within the personalities of our two major party leaders…Pierre Trudeau, jaw thrust out, thumbs figuratively or literally hooked in his belt loops, aspires to become a tiger in spring, while Joe Clark, voice deliberately dropped an octave to signify either wisdom or a bad cold, is doing his best to appear the lion in winter.”
During one stretch of the campaign, Clark visited six different promises in a week, starting each day with a tour of a mine, factory or shipyard, then holding a press conference to talk about what he had seen, then followed by a speech at the local community organization like a Chamber of Commerce. He still ran into problems. At one event at Toronto’s Cedarbrae Collegiate, a student cracked a raw egg into the outstretched hand of Clark.
The Social Credit party was still around and their leader of Fabien Roy was popular in Quebec and had the support of the Parti Quebecois. Ed Broadbent was the new leader of the New Democratic Party, having taken over in 1975 in a post he would hold until 1989, longer than anyone else in the history of the party. The NDP still had problems trying to get coverage at some points. In one instance, Broadbent toured a steel mill in Sydney, Nova Scotia but neither CBC or CTV used any of the video from the event on the newscast that evening.
The NDP would campaign on the issues of inflation, unemployment, energy security through the expansion of Petro Canada and tax reform.
Two weeks before the election, Clark would have a scare when his campaign plane was flying at 19,000 feet and one of its two engines suddenly failed. A loud bang was heard in the starboard engine and was forced to land at the Toronto airport rather than continue on to Prince Edward Island.
For the second time in Canadian history, and for the first time in 11 years, a televised debate would be held. There had been no debates in 1972 or 1974 due to parties not being interested in holding one. This year, the Liberals wanted to debate in the hopes of showing intellectual superiority by Trudeau over Clark, and the Conservatives agreed knowing that not doing the debate would be worse than being bested in it.
The debate was watched by millions of Canadians, but Joe Clark did not fair well, with many labeling him as weak compared to the other leaders. The debate did not deter anyone who was already thinking of voting for him, from doing so though. Ed Broadbent of the NDP did the best at the debate, portraying his party as an alternative to the Liberals. He was an experienced speaker and the debate resulted in the NDP making him the centerpiece of their television advertising.
Of the debate, the Ottawa Citizen would write, quote:
In a survey several days after the debate, only seven per cent of viewers thought Joe Clark was effective in the debate, while 26 per cent said the same of Trudeau and 28 per cent of Broadbent.
When the Montreal Canadiens won their fourth straight Stanley Cup on May 21, Trudeau made sure he was in the dressing room with the players. He also attended the game and even caught a puck that went over the boards. When he was in the dressing room, he was drenched in champagne.
By the time the election came about, there had been 602 hours of commercials, 300 or more leader speeches and thousands of handshakes, door knocks and stuffed mailboxes.
The election proved to be an incredible surprise to many. Held on May 22, 1979, the Progressive Conservatives picked up 38 seats to finish with 136, just below a majority. The Liberals lost 19 seats to finish with 114, putting Pierre Trudeau in the opposition for the first time ever. The New Democratic Party picked up nine seats to finish with 26, and the Social Credit Party lost three seats to finish with six.
The Conservatives took the majority of seats in every province from British Columbia to Ontario. In Alberta, the party won every single seat, along with 10 of 14 of seats in Saskatchewan. In Quebec, there was nearly no support for Clark and the Progressive Conservatives, where the party only won two seats, while the Liberals picked up 67.
In the loss, the Liberals would see 13 of their cabinet ministers defeated in the election. Only the ministers in Quebec were safe it seemed.
With his election as prime minister, Joe Clark became the youngest prime minister in history, a record that stands to this day.
With his first election loss, Trudeau was gracious in defeat. He volunteered a government JetStar to fly Clark home on the weekend and he invited Clark’s wife Maureen to tour 24 Sussex Drive when the Clark family arrived in Ottawa. He also called Clark in Jasper to arrange a meeting in the capital.
Trudeau would say upon his loss, quote:
“The real good news is that democracy is still full of vitality in Canada.”
One sad aspect of this election was that it would be the last for John Diefenbaker. Since 1940, he had served in the House of Commons and had taken the Progressive Conservatives to their greatest height in 1958 with his majority election win. Diefenbaker had not liked Clark, calling him an upstart and a pipsqueak and had attacked him constantly to the point that Stanfield told him to stop sticking a knife into Mr. Clark. During his campaign, in his last election, he would suffer a mild stroke and the media was told he had the flu. In the election, he defeated his NDP opponent by 4,000 votes. In his election win, he would say, quote:
Two months after seeing the Progressive Conservatives come to power for the first time since he was prime minister from 1958 to 1963, Diefenbaker passed away from a heart attack in his study.
Soon after losing, Trudeau would announce that he was stepping down as leader of the Liberals.
Then, things began to change.
Clark had decided to govern as though he had a majority, without support from other parties. Due to not meeting any demands made by the Social Credit Party for their support, he had no support from the other parties in Parliament.
In late 1979, John Crosbie introduced the budget that included an increase on the excise tax on gasoline of four cents per litre to reduce the federal deficit. With neither the Social Credit Party nor the New Democratic Party supporting the Progressive Conservatives on the budget, it turned into a vote that could bring down the government. The Conservatives held the vote when one of their MPs was too ill to attend and two others were away on business. The Liberals would bring in as many MPs as they could, including bringing in several who were bedridden by ambulance. In the end, the Conservatives fell due to a vote of 139 to 133. Many question why the opposition parties would bring down the government so soon after the election, or why the Conservatives did not work with the opposition party. Crosbie would state later about the confidence of the party in the budget, stating quote:
“I shared the cabinet’s conviction that, if the Opposition parties were so foolhardy as to bring down our new administration in Parliament, the Canadian people would punish them in the polls.”
What the Conservatives ignored was that a Gallup series of polls had shown support for the Conservatives had fallen from 36 per cent in the summer, to 28 per cent days before the budget bill debate, putting them behind the Liberals.
Clark had been prime minister for only nine months and Trudeau, seeing a chance to return to power, decided not to resign and would go into his fifth election as leader of the Liberals. When the government fell, the Liberals were technically leaderless, and even with Trudeau back, the Conservatives believed that the country would reject the Liberals in favor of the Conservatives.
The Conservatives campaigned on the slogan of Real Change Deserves A Fair Chance but as it turned out, the voters were not ready to give another chance only nine months after the previous election. The party would campaign on the same issues and promises it had made only months earlier in the last election and for the most part were unprepared for the election.
The Liberals shifted tactics. In the 1979 election, national unity was the main part of their platform but in this election, they would barely mention it. The Liberals campaign would be low-key, relying on public anger at the Conservatives to defeat the party. The Liberals also made sure they did nothing to dissipate the lead they had in the polls. There would be few appearances of Trudeau, much less than in previous elections, and the party would promise to guarantee employment and bring in new social policies to improve quality of life for Canadians. Trudeau appeared to be more relaxed as well on the campaign. In one incident, someone had poke holes in all the Styrofoam cups at an event at the University of Saskatchewan event in mid January. Trudeau discovered this as he stood before 500 students pouring from one cup to another. He would state, quote:
“I give marks to the student who did this.”
An aide nearby said that heads would have rolled for such an incident last spring.
A very strange issue with the election was that public servants had to sit in near-tropical temperatures in their offices until after the election because plans to turn down the thermostats was stalled by the election. The thermostats could not be adjusted without approval from the Treasury Board, which is followed by cabinet approval. For some of the offices, the temperatures were set as high as 25 degrees.
Unlike the previous election, there would be no debate for the 1980 election as Trudeau refused to join a television debate with other party leaders. Clark would state of the matter, quote:
“We cannot have a strong democratic system if we have a national leader like Mr. Trudeau, who refuses to debate the issues, who refuses to face the other leaders, who refuses to answer the questions of the people of Canada. What is at issue here is democracy. He does not believe in it. We believe in it.”
A radio debate was also rejected by the Liberals. A few days later, a televised radio debate was offered, which the Liberals also rejected, demanding no journalists be present. In fact, until Jan. 30, Trudeau did not agree to do a news conference. He only agreed once a petition was signed by nearly every journalist on his campaign jet. The last news conference that Trudeau had done was on Dec. 18, less than a week after Parliament was dissolved.
As the election approached, Gallup polls continued to put the Liberals in the lead, with the Conservatives 17 points behind. Clark would state that the polls were wrong, citing enthusiasm from his own workers on the door-to-door campaign.
On the campaign trail, Clark was met with both indifference and sometimes open hostility. In Saskatoon on Feb. 12, Clark was about to speak in front of 1,200 farmers when the RCMP ordered the hall cleared after receiving a bomb threat. This was the second time the campaign had been pranked in such a manner in the space of a week. Once everyone came back into the hall, a dozen Liberal supporters started to heckle Clark. He would state, quote:
On Feb. 13, Clark held his 13th open-line radio show and while there were the usual questions about his policies, many others either made fun of the prime minister, or asked questions about John Diefenbaker. One woman called stating she wanted a facelift but her doctor wouldn’t do it without her husband’s consent and she wanted to know what Clark would do about it. Another person said that the two bomb threats were nothing but gimmicks to drum up publicity by the Conservatives.
In the Feb. 18, 1980 election, Trudeau and the Liberals gained 33 seats to finish with 147 and a majority government, while the Progressive Conservatives lost 33 seats and finished with 103. Ed Broadbent and the New Democratic Party gained five seats to finish with 32, while the Social Credit Party collapsed, losing all five of their seats. Formed in 1935, the Social Credit Party had reached its high of 30 seats in 1962, but from this point on, they would never win another seat. By 1988, they would only field nine candidates and would never be part of another election after that point. In 1993, the party disbanded.
While the Progressive Conservatives took the majority of seats from British Columbia to Manitoba, the Liberals only picked up two seats total in that same region. In Ontario, the Liberals won 52 seats, while in Quebec they won 74 of 75 seats. The Progressive Conservatives came away with just one seat in the province.
Clark would state upon his loss, quote:
“I accept the decision of the electors of Canada tonight.”
Trudeau, would begin his speech with the now famous remark, quote:
“Welcome, to the 1980s.”
This would be the end for Clark as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, at least for now. In 1983, he would be ousted by Brian Mulroney in a leadership contest, one year before the Progressive Conservatives would face off against the Liberals once again in an election. Clark would remain as a cabinet minister, becoming the minister of foreign affairs before retiring in 1993. In 1998, he would be brought out of retirement to lead the shattered Progressive Conservatives in 1998, helping the party rebuild before its merger with the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party in 2003.
For Trudeau, this would be his last election win. He would retire from politics in 1984, beginning a quite retirement that would last until his death from prostate cancer in 2000.
Information from Biographi, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Macleans,