The Long History of Progressive Conservatives in Canada

These are tough days for Canadian Conservatives. Their chosen government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is losing support from scandals over the Senate and now over the heavily disputed Fair Elections Act. Since its 2003 merger with the Canadian Reform Party (then called the Canadian Alliance), the party has succeeded in forming a minority and majority government much to the chagrin of nearly 2/3rds of the Canadian electorate that voted for other parties. Many disparage the Conservative Party as a destructive right-wing movement that impedes Canada in the 21st century. Criticism of the neo-liberal policies of the Conservatives are usually based in ideological disagreements, which sometimes results in broad generalizations about all Canadian conservatives. It's worthwhile to remember the roots and success of the old Progressive Conservatives – Canadians conservatives should not be defined by one leader or one party in 2014.

The 2003 merger with the Canadian Alliance angered many of the old Red Tories of the Progressive Conservative Party. Peter MacKay had replaced the venerable one-time PC Prime Minister Joe Clark in the 2003 leadership race against David Orchard. MacKay signed a document explicitly forbidding the new leader to merge with the Canadian Alliance. Within months however, MacKay reneged on the deal. Some Progressive Conservatives left the party, but most hoped the agreement would at least bring electoral success to the wayward party that was still recovering from its devastating loss in the 1993 federal election. The combined parties formed the Conservative Party of Canada and under that brand quickly fashioned a different form of Canadian conservatism. According to its critics, the new conservatism took more from the Alliance, whose leader Stephen Harper was chosen to lead the new party, than the old PCs.

The Conservatives won a minority government in the election of 2006 and eventually secured a majority in 2011. Without a doubt, they had a clear vision of Canada that diverged from their Liberal opponents. In 2006, they promised accountability, transparency and sound fiscal governance – a vast contrast to the Liberal Party under Paul Martin that was enmeshed in the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Inquiry. Tapping into the western alienation that formed the foundation of Alliance support in the Prairies as well as central Canadian fatigue at thirteen years of Liberal government, the Conservative Party won the 2006 election.

After surviving the 2008 recession, in part because of Liberal banking policies and in part the steady stewardship of the recently passed Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, the outlook for the 2011 election looked promising. Fear of surging NDP support under the ever-popular Jack Layton and general dissatisfaction with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff may have pushed even more Ontarians to vote Conservative in 2011 leading to a majority government. That night, as Quebec threw enough support to the NDP that they became Official Opposition, the Conservative majority seemed to break the Liberal implication that they alone could govern all of Canada. Some have described it as the end of the “Laurentian Consensus” between Ontario and Quebec that has given Canada a long history of Liberal governments. Like the 2003 merger originally promised, Western and Ontario conservatives united to govern Canada.

Since the majority of Canadians vote for left-leaning parties, it's not surprising that so many are dissatisfied with the current government. Among partisans, the evils of Canadian conservatism knows no bounds and they sometimes point to Canada's long Liberal century from 1896-2006 that had eighty years of Liberal governments as proof of the benefits of Liberal governance. Or some might raise the influence of NDP leader Tommy Douglas in forming modern Canada during the 1960s by supporting the minority government of Lester Pearson. Such selective history dismisses the accomplishments of the old Progressive Conservative Party. Although they were often unsuccessful at the polls and often held onto unpopular policies for years, they did contribute to Canadian political history.

The Progressive Conservatives were formed in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War. A group of Conservatives were unhappy with their atrocious performance in recent byelections, particularly the byelection of York South contested by the Conservative leader Arthur Meighen. Meighen ran on pro-conscription sentiment and sought a seat to represent the party in Parliament. Prime Minister Mackenzie King did not run a Liberal candidate, nominally out of respect for Meighen, but the result was many voters had to choose between a pro-conscription Conservative and the NDP-forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF candidate won as Liberal supporters voted against Meighen, who embarrassingly could not even win a seat in the House of Commons as leader. Some Conservatives saw Meighen's brand of conservatism as an anachronism, with its lingering ties to the old imperialist party of the First World War where Meighen had served as a competent Cabinet Minister and leader in the 1920s. They wanted a new party that could contest the Liberal hold on Canadians.

The Conservatives met in Port Hope, Ontario, and drafted new progressive policy that aligned more closely with the sentiment of the time. It included traditional policies, including support for conscription, but also presented policies on low-cost housing, old age pensions, family allowances, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, and even a national contributory medical system. These progressive policies were representative of a new generation emerging in the Conservative party as well as an appeal to Canadians supporting the CCF or Liberals. In December of 1942, a leadership convention called to replace Arthur Meighen chose John Bracken, who accepted on the conditions that the party pursue the Port Hope policies as well as change its name to Progressive Conservatives.

Bracken and his successor George Drew were unpopular leaders and could not gather support from Canadians. Much like Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, Bracken and Drew did not appeal to the electorate due to a lack of charisma and Liberal success in defining them as poor or uninspiring leaders. They continued to promote progressive policies, but it would be the third PC leader, John G. Diefenbaker, who eventually secured government.

Diefenbaker, a popular and likable lawyer from Saskatchewan, was a formidable presence inside and outside the House of Commons. He won a minority government in the 1957 election after twenty-two years of Liberal governments. The new Liberal leader Lester Pearson arrogantly demanded Diefenbaker return the government to the Liberals in 1958, and Diefenbaker replied by calling a snap election. Riding the wave of Liberal-rejection and his own charismatic appeal to Canadians, Diefenbaker went on to win one of the largest shares of the popular vote (53.66%) in Canadian history.

The new Prime Minister quickly went about establishing his mark on government by implementing Progressive Conservative policies while also reinforcing Canadian ties to Britain. He introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, an important precursor to the Canadian Charter that enshrined civil liberties in federal law, though it did not have the breadth of Trudeau's constitutional change and unfortunately had little impact. He gave voting rights to Canada's Indigenous peoples, appointed the first female Cabinet Minister in Canadian history, and took a firm stance against South African Apartheid leading to its removal from the Commonwealth of Nations. Diefenbaker, for all his problems (of which there are many), was definitely a progressive conservative.

After a series of embarrassing political debacles, Diefenbaker eventually lost the trust of Canadians. His controlling style of government, imperious dislike of those who crossed him, and disregard for new Canadian ties to the United States over Britain, resulted in a return to minority government in 1962. A year later, Lester Pearson's Liberals won an election and the Conservatives lost power. The Progressive Conservatives had a brief moment in power under Joe Clark in 1979-80, though they were quickly replaced by the Trudeau Liberals. Under Brian Mulroney from 1984-1993 they again won an impressive share of the popular vote and formed majority governments. The Progressive Conservatives had several successful years in Ottawa before an economic recession and national discord over the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords led to the collapse of the party. In 1993, they were reduced from their 151-seat majority to two seats in the House of Commons, leading to the eventual merger with the more successful Canadian Alliance in 2003.

The rise and fall of the Progressive Conservative Party deserves more words than can fit into a blog post. The brand of conservatism that replaced them in the Canadian political sphere is far more discordant with Canadians, but it does us no good to demean conservatism in Canada using today's Conservative Party as an example. Conservatives may have a shorter list of accomplishments than Liberals, but all are Canadian accomplishments. In today's heated debate over badly designed and poorly sold legislation like the Fair Elections Act, it's important to remember that many conservatives are still progressives. The increasingly un-progressive policies of the current government may appeal to its partisans, but not necessarily to its popular base.

In 2015, an election is set to be held and we will see what new history will be made. Will the Conservatives hold onto power without support of Quebec and perhaps less support in Ontario? Did the new conservatism break the so-called “Laurentian Consensus”? Will the old Red Tories reclaim their hold on the party? Interestingly, Diefenbaker would have won his 1958 majority even if Quebec had voted Liberal – if they had, perhaps historians would give Diefenbaker credit for breaking the Laurentian consensus fifty years before Stephen Harper. Of course, Ontario and Quebec would reject Diefenbaker after years of mismanagement and a resurgent Liberal Party, so the consensus was not truly broken.  The progressive conservatives of Canada spent many years since their founding 1942 in the "wilderness" of electoral defeat.  Trying to find their way out of the wild led to the 2003 merger, though one might easily wonder if they are still lost.