He cut his political teeth campaigning door to door with his mother for her boss, Ontario Tory MPP Bill Hodgson. However, he was never a Progressive Conservative at heart, and in fact his political beliefs were what is now called neoconservative.
"What I saw on the front of Time magazine, which I read religiously every week, was this failure of the American democratic impulse," he remembers. "Around us was the fall of Vietnam, the emasculation of American power, Watergate .... What I remember was the frontal assault on American power, and the encroachment by communism all over the world. And in Canada, there were the failed experiments of Pierre Trudeau. His economic experiments were a shambles, his anti-Americanism wasn't getting us anywhere, the increasing role of the state in all aspects of our lives was, in my view, creating more problems than it was solving. And then in 1978 you had this woman named Margaret Thatcher, who proved you could turn back some of the awful things done by socialism and set things right again. And then in 1980 you had this guy Ronald Reagan. They showed you could have conservative principles and still win." (1)Unfortunately, Clement was misguided by his heroes. Margaret Thatcher was a train wreck:
When Margaret Thatcher was elected I started my first year at university. Very quickly in the face of her Reagan-inspired "hard economics" and austerity treatment I saw every possibility of employment at the end of my course evaporate. 3.3 million were unemployed with no hope of a job. The economy went into recession and the dole was being withdrawn unless you could "prove" you were actively searching for work. It ruined millions of people's lives and put millions more into unproductive boredom and hardship. It cost the country £40b in lost productivity and the only thing Margaret did was make it worse. (2)And Ronald Reagan, while he preached small government, actually expanded the government and his horrible economics made the rich richer and created the most homeless people in the history of the United States. (3) He also increased the debt by two trillion dollars, while increasing federal spending and federal staff. (4)
Nonetheless, Panayi "... arrived at the University of Toronto in 1979 filled with missionary zeal to bring the faith of Thatcher and Reagan to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario ..." (1)
But he also arrived with something else ... a new name. His mother had just married former MPP John Clement, and though already an adult more or less, Tony decided to take his stepfather's name, reinventing himself as Tony Clement.
The same year, 1979, another young man would enrol at the University of Toronto, but would only stay for two months, opting to move to Edmonton to take a job in the mail room at Imperial Oil, the company his father had worked for. This would be his only real job outside of politics. Also an avid fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Stephen Harper would go on to help found the Reform Party, lead the Alliance Party and eventually become the movement's first prime minister. (5)
It's unlikely that Clement and Harper met at the school, but Tony did find willing accomplices in fellow students Alister Campbell, Tom Long and Mitch Patten, all sharing the same ideology.
"At a time when the rest of the country was enchanted with the charismatic prime minister [Trudeau] and his vision of Canada, simply being a Conservative was an unusual choice. To be committed to the neoconservative agenda of Thatcher and Reagan during this period was nothing short of suicidal, politically speaking." (6)And yet this small group of young radicals were able to take over the campus Conservatives, increasing it's membership from being almost nothing to 500, with gimmicks (Clement once dressed in a penguin costume), and aggressive marketing. Did they change minds? It's difficult to know, but they presented a platform that was anything but the status quo:
They believed that governments needed to cut taxes in order stimulate spending and increase individual choice, that they needed to balance their budgets in order to escape the trap of escalating deficits, that they needed to get out of most economic regulation in order to let the market reward winners, punish losers, and generate wealth for everyone. Most important, governments needed to abolish most of their social programs, which took money from people who earned it and gave it to people who hadn't. Such a doctrine was anathema to moderate Conservatives, who felt, as former federal leader Robert Stanfield argued, that the market should not be trusted more than was necessary. (7)And not content with simply drawing in the conservative minded they also sought to change the views of the left:
Eventually the young PCs at the University of Toronto also decided to take on their left-wing enemies on campus, launching a campaign against a proposal to double the compulsory fees levied against each student in support of the Ontario Federation of Students. The Tories accused the federation of wasting money on a bloated administration, and of worrying more about helping the Sandinistas than representing student interests. (Among other things, the Tories put up a sign in an Engineering building proclaiming "Three dollars will get you the Ontario Federation of Students or seven beers at the Brunswick House. Take your pick.") They won a referendum on the issue in a landslide. (7)They quickly became a force to be reckoned with:
By the early 1980s, as Mike Harris was first finding his feet as a young MPP, the neo-conservative youth were an increasing power within the provincial Conservatives. Long—a bit older than most of the others, passionate and uncompromising—led the troops. "There were huge fights over who was going to control the campus wing of the party," Long remembers. "That got settled in the late seventies, and for about ten years or so my faction controlled the campus wing." In 1982, Long managed the campaign that secured control for the neo-cons of the executive of the Progressive Conservative Youth Association. Both the campus and youth wings of the party were now firmly led by ideologues of the far Right. These wings were important to the party, both for the influence they wielded at leadership conventions, and for the legions of indefatigable volunteers they supplied during campaigns. (7)But they would soon move on to bigger challenges as they steered toward taking over not just a university campus, but an entire province.
Why Do Neoconservatives Hate Nelson Mandela?
1. Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, By John Ibbitson, 1997, ISBN: 0136738648, Pg. 30
2. 1979: Looking back at the Thatcher era, By Mike Rumfitt, May 4, 2005
3. Hard Right Turn: The New Face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada, Brooke Jeffrey, Harper-Collins, 1999, ISBN: 0-00 255762-2
4. Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy, By Will Bunch, Free Press, ISBN: 978-1-4165-9762-9
5. Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, by William Johnson, 2005, ISBN 0-7710 4350-3
6. Jeffrey, 1999, Pg. 164
7. Ibbitson, 1997, Pg. 31-32