MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Blair Fraser January 22 1966
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Blair Fraser January 22 1966

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Blair Fraser

John Turner's a minister without a portfolio but with a bright future

WHEN THE NEW parliament opens in a fortnight’s time and the new Pearson ministers get their baptism of opposition fire, the man in the best position may well be the one with the least imposing title — John Napier Turner, 36-year-old MP for Montreal-St. Lawrence-St. George, and now minister without portfolio.

To many of Turner’s friends the appointment was a disappointment. They said, quite rightly, that he had special aptitudes for the newly created Department of Resources and Energy. As parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources he made himself parliament’s ranking expert on water policy, which will be one of the new ministry’s thornier problems, and he has also had lots of contact with other aspects of its work. Unquestionably he would have made a good minister.

But Turner, though young and ambitious, is also a hard-headed political realist. Jean-Luc Pépin, the professor of economics who did get the job, is Turner’s senior in cabinet office by half a year, and a man of ability and good repute. For an English-speaking Montrealer to be leapfrogged over the head of a French Canadian, in a cabinet shuffle which had already included resignations of two FrenchCanadian ministers, would have been obviously (and lethally) bad politics. It was imperative for Prime Minister Pearson to meet the frequent criticism that “no French Canadian ever gets an important post in the economic field.” Potentially at least, the new ministry is one of the most

important of all, and a qualified French Canadian was available to handle it. Turner is as well able to see the logic of this as anyone else.

More important, he will be doing a substantial job anyway, despite appearances. Without the title, he will be assistant transport minister. Jack Pickersgill has been wearing himself out with overwork in that office. Some months ago he asked Prime Minister Pearson for either (a) an easier portfolio, or (b) an assistant minister to take over some fraction of the work load, which is one of the heaviest in the government. The prime minister chose the second alternative. When Jean-Luc Pépin was first appointed to the cabinet last summer, without portfolio, he was slated to move into an office in the Transport Department — in fact, he was invited to move into Pickcrsgill’s own office when Pickersgill went off for a few weeks in Newfoundland, and learn by direct experience what the big job was like.

As things turned out he never did take up this offer. The session came to an end, Pépin too went off on a holiday, then the election campaign began and the office of the untitled assistant minister has never yet been occupied. But it’s still there, with a welcome mat out for a willing worker.

Turner will take over some of Pickersgill’s work with Pickersgill’s glad consent. Two of the other newcomers will be less fortunate. JeanLuc Pépin, in the new Ministry of Resources and Energy, will be taking over the most interesting part of Arthur Laing’s Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. Jean Marchand, in the new Ministry of Manpower, not only takes away Citizenship and Immigration from John Nicholson, but also absorbs the most interesting part of Nicholson’s

new portfolio. Labor. To see two British Columbia ministers reduced for the benefit of two Quebeckers will not please everybody, least of all the two men directly concerned.

Marchand and Pépin may also encounter some rivalry from the minister of Forestry, Maurice Sauvé, who used to have a monopoly of the newguard position in the cabinet. Had Sauvé been “promoted" to Trade and Commerce as he hoped, he could have felt secure in the leadership of the new Quebec group. Now all three have equal rank, ministers of potentially important departments but none with any seniority, actual or traditional, over any other. Since it is also obvious that Jean Marchand is the man being groomed to succeed Guy Lavreau as Quebec leader, the whole situation means a setback for Sauvé which he resents.

As for the other newcomers, JeanPierre Côté is safe but obscure as postmaster-general, a job that draws no enemy fire but also offers no fame. A postmaster-general is about as likely to become a national figure as the runner-up in a tiddly-winks tournament.

Joe Greene, the Toronto-born lawyer from the Ottawa valley w'ho finds himself minister of Agriculture, has drawn the real kamikaze mission. If by some stroke of luck or genius he should succeed he will be a hero. But for one who is (a) an easterner (b) a city slicker and (c) a man w'ho knows as much about farming as he does about nuclear physics, the odds against success are forbiddingly long.

Among these vulnerable colleagues, John Turner holds w'hat sailors call the safe leeward position. Unlike the postmaster - general he will have ample chance to demonstrate, to his fellow' ministers if not yet to parliament, what he can do. Unlike his fellow neophytes he will be undergoing a true apprenticeship, with the aid and assistance of a practised old hand, instead of breaking wholly new' ground. And while he will not be exposed automatically or ex officio to heavy fire from the opposition, he will be free to step into any parliamentary combat — in a session where political battle is likely to be more important than either legislation or administration. All in all, an enviable situation.