COVER

A Blow To The Liberals

HILARY MACKENZIE August 3 1987
COVER

A Blow To The Liberals

HILARY MACKENZIE August 3 1987

A Blow To The Liberals

COVER

John Turner was returning the lobs as fast as they came. At a celebrity fund-raising tennis tournament in Vancouver last week, the embattled Liberal leader took on five couples who paid up to $2,000 to play against him and help replenish party coffers. Liberals across the country could only wish that his party’s performance on the political circuit matched his volleys on the court. Instead, the party was rocked yet again as it failed to win even one of last week’s three federal byelections. Unable to take advantage of the protest vote against the Conservative government-registered in the strong NDP showingeven Turner’s own leadership of the party seemed in question. Acknowledged one senior Ontario Liberal: “That is a very serious blow.”

Turner tried to soften the blow just two days after the byelections. In a move plotted two months before—but not announced in case it affected the party morale before the votes —

Turner replaced Senator Michael Kirby and Quebec MP Raymond Garneau as co-chairmen of the federal Liberals’ national election readiness committee. The new appointees: senators Alasdair Graham and Pietro Rizzuto. Graham, 58, president of the Liberal party from 1975 to 1980, is known as a cheerful, grassroots man with skills needed to heal the rift between the older generation of Liberals and those who rallied behind Turner’s cry for a new and open party. Born in Italy, Rizzuto, 53, has been a successful party fund raiser in Quebec.

Contacts: At the same time, Turner named Gayneau his Quebec lieutenant— and moved to improve the strategic advice that he has been getting by putting Kirby in charge of his strategy committee. Kirby, now a partner in Toronto’s Goldfarb Consultants, did not have the party contacts needed for his previous post, in which he oversaw party organization from the constituency to the na-

tional level. Liberal insiders also said that he disagreed with Turner’s position in support of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Said one: “Michael told Turner, T just cannot continue to work with you like this.’ ”

Damage: The changes in Turner’s office—to be followed by the appointment of a policy adviser next month— were part of a larger plan to limit the damage done by the Liberals’ fall in popularity. The party was running

first in public opinion polls, with about 40-per-cent support, until April when it dropped to second place behind the NDP. That drop was attributed to policy divisions on free trade, the Constitution and cruise missile testing. Last week’s shakeup was designed to reassure party faithful that Turner is determined to regain first place. Said one Liberal: “It’s damage control: let’s show our troops we’re not lying down, that we’re making changes.”

But the changes masked a deeper unease that Liberal insiders said Turner has yet to address. Many Liberals said that the party has not come to terms with the real threat posed by

the NDP’S sharp rise in popularity. Said Kirby: “We are really in a new political environment. We must take the NDP seriously.” That view was shared by Thomas Axworthy, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s principal secretary. Said Axworthy: “This is a snapshot, but it is one that is in pretty sharp focus.”

Indeed, the NDP’S rise in popular support caught many Liberals off guard. The party had hoped to win at least one riding: Yukon. Instead, Audrey McLaughlin won the seat for the NDP by a slim margin of 332 votes. Aghast, senior Liberals conceded that they do not have a strategy to deal with the NDP phenomenon. At the same time, the party has been unable to attract star candidates— and to convince party war-horses to retire and make way for new blood. Last month, despite a personal appeal from Turner, former finance minister Donald Macdonald refused to assist in candidate recruitment. Macdonald argued that it would be hypocritical to recruit candidates when he disagreed with current Liberal policies, particularly the party’s opposition to a free trade pact with the United States.

Strategy: Despite those troubles, the party drew solace from its strong second-place showing in the Yukon and Hamilton Mountain. Senior Liberals also say that the NDP itself does not know why it is doing so well—and that its bubble of popular support will soon burst. Said one: “They’ve drawn 10 lucky numbers, but they don’t know how they’ve done it.” Behind the scenes in Ottawa, Turner himself used the results at a strategy meeting of top Liberals to underline the need for party unity. But unless Turner can find a way to counter the NDP’S remarkable rise, it was far from clear that his call would be heeded.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa with MARY JANIGAN in Toronto