Dear Joe Clark, Kim Campbell and Jean Charest:

As we approach the 45th anniversary of Joe Clark’s swearing-in as prime minister on June 4, 1979, I am appealing to the three of you to help preserve the legacy of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party of Canada (1942-2003). As its former leaders, you are three of the most powerful remaining symbols of the party.

The three of you have one more thing in common: each of you led the PC Party when it faced the Reform Party or its successor, the Canadian Alliance, in a federal election — in 2000, 1993 and 1997, respectively.

Each of you knows what it is like to contend with a right-wing populist party. Since its birth in 2003 as a result of the PC-Alliance merger, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has been dominated by the same reactionary and populist forces that founded the Reform Party in 1987. Unfortunately, thanks to the merger, the Reformers seized control of the conservative brand and were able to convince many moderate voters to support the hard-right CPC.

On the occasion of the June 4th anniversary, it is important to highlight one of the most important differences between the old PC Party that the three of you led and the new CPC: freedom-of-information (FOI) policy.

On June 22, 1978, Joe Clark stated in the House of Commons: “We are talking about the reality that real power is limited to those who have facts. In a democracy that power and that information should be shared broadly. In Canada today, they are not and to that degree, we are no longer a democracy in any sensible sense of that word.”

On Nov. 3, 1979, Clark as prime minister proposed Canada’s first FOI legislation. However, Bill C-15 was suspended with the PC government’s defeat in the February 1980 election. The need for FOI laws, though, was still acknowledged. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau passed the Access to Information Act (ATIA) in 1982. The PC governments in office from 1984 to 1993 kept this legislation. According to a BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association report by Stanley L. Tromp, many journalists see the 1980s as a “golden age” of the ATIA.

In contrast, the CPC government led by Stephen Harper (2006-15) had a cynical approach to FOI that hindered the public’s ability to get facts. A 2013 report by the Centre for Law and Democracy ranked Canada as 55th in the world for upholding FOI. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders’ Delphine Halgand said that Harper showed “a very clear negative attitude towards freedom of the press and freedom of information.”

More recently, Pierre Poilievre has made it one of his trademarks as CPC leader to treat broad parts of the media with disdain.

Canada needs a proper balance between centre-right and centre-left forces to reduce the scope for division and extremism, writes Michael Huenefeld @liberal_party @CPC_HQ @NDP #cdnpoli

This makes it hard for Canadians to get clear data about his plans.

Both Harper and Poilievre are from the Reform Party. Reform’s culture was based on anger, resentment and dogmatism. It was only natural for this culture to eventually find expression in efforts by both CPC leaders to suppress and control information. This approach, as Clark pointed out in 1978, is not compatible with a strong democracy.

FOI is but one of the many areas where we see a deep contrast between the old moderate PC Party and the current radical CPC. It is not healthy for Canada to have a right-wing populist party such as the CPC as the alternative to the Liberals.

Only by detaching moderate voters from the CPC can the status quo on the centre-right space of Canadian politics be changed. Losing these voters will cause the CPC to suffer a fourth consecutive electoral defeat. In turn, this will unlock the CPC’s hold over many other conservative voters by forcing them to realize the CPC is not a viable option. This will then give rise to a fluid situation on the centre-right that will open the door to the rebirth of progressive conservatism. Such a rebirth will give Canada again a proper balance between centre-right and centre-left forces that reduces the scope for division and extremism.

I am asking the three of you to help this rebirth by releasing a joint statement that encourages moderates to leave the CPC.

I know how much the three of you have done for Canada.

Our country still needs you.

Sincerely,

A fellow progressive conservative

Michael Huenefeld was an activist in the federal Progressive Conservative Party from 1998 to 2003. In 2002, he received an award from Joe Clark for outstanding service to the party. He has been involved in B.C. provincial and Vancouver municipal politics. In 2022, he volunteered for Jean Charest’s Conservative Party leadership campaign.

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