CANADA

Turner strikes back

PAUL GESSELL August 31 1987
CANADA

Turner strikes back

PAUL GESSELL August 31 1987

Turner strikes back

CANADA

Immediate action was imperative. Ever since he won a vote of confidence from his party at a convention last November, Liberal Leader John Turner had been besieged by problems. Aides were leaving, grassroots Liberals were grumbling and Turner’s standing in public opinion polls was chronically unfavorable. His very future as leader, some experts said, was in doubt. But last week, during a three-hour dinner at a popular late-night restaurant in Ottawa, the beginning of a comeback plan was laid. Over a rare steak, Turner listened patiently as one of his most loyal Quebec MPS, Jean Lapierre, outlined his strategy to revitalize the loyal band of workers known as The Friends of John Turner, who had tirelessly campaigned to secure the November vote.

Said Lapierre later: “Once we get the machine started, it will kill any outside movements or coups d’état.”

The turning point for Turner came on Aug. 12 when his principal secretary, Douglas Richardson, abruptly resigned. As a result, close assoTurner:

ciates were finally able to encourage Turner to take action. In the following week Turner entertained several key party officials to mend fences and seek advice. The rebirth of The Friends of John Turner was only one development. Turner also set out to become friendlier with his party’s rank-and-

file, the news media and even his own staff, many of whom had been feeling alienated and demoralized. And to bring order to his often haphazard policymaking, Turner recruited Robert Jackson, a respected political scientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, as a senior adviser. Turner’s first choice for the position had been David Crane, an economics writer with The Toronto Star, but Crane declined the offer.

Party sources said that Turner’s attempts to make firmer policy decisions will be revealed over the next month when the Liberals unveil proposed amendments to the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Despite reservations, Turner has endorsed the agreement reached by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 premiers that would make Quebec a signatory to the Constitution. Those reservations, relating particularly to increased provincial powers, are expected to be voiced in much stronger form in the proposed amendments, partly because of the influence of Jackson, an opponent of much of the accord. “The Meech Lake accord should be shelved,” Jackson wrote in a May 29 article in The Ottawa Citizen. “Both the process and substance of the agreement are recklessly flawed.”

A new, tougher stand on the Constitution could also help to silence some Liberals who oppose the accord and are unhappy with Turner’s endorsement of it. Said one source close to Turner: “We will never bridge that gap on Meech Lake—but we will narrow it.” However, Liberal infighting could resurface this week because former prime minister Pierre Trudeau is scheduled to testify at parliamentary hearings on the accord. Trudeau embarrassed Turner last May by publicly condemning the agreement, and he is expected to dominate headlines once again with critical remarks.

In the wake of Richardson’s departure, some senior Liberals attempted last week to o. portray him as the source of ^ many of Turner’s problems in 5 the past year. Many MPs and I party officials were privately exhilarated when Richardson

resigned. According to a top Liberal official, Richardson had in fact offered to leave after the New Democrats won all three byelections on July 20. Still, Turner was surprised when Richardson drafted what the official called “an emotional and impulsive” resignation letter. Amid tears and recriminations, other aides loyal to Richardson threatened to quit.

Last week Turner tried to heal the wounds in his office, organizing a reception for his staff. The excuse was to introduce Jackson, but one participant said that the real reason was to give Turner a chance to chat informally with his aides, most of whom work in a building across the street from Turner’s Parliament Hill office and felt alienated from their boss.

The Liberal leader was also considering about 15 names as possible replacements for Richardson in the key position of principal secretary. One favorite is Michael Robinson, a former aide to onetime Liberal cabinet minister Judd Buchanan. Robinson, an Ottawa business consultant just back from an intensive French course in France, is considered a strong organizer.

Despite Turner’s overtures to his fractious caucus and staff, many problems remain. Many of the 40 Liberal MPs say that they are increasingly worried about their party’s secondplace standing in the polls, behind the NDP. Sources say that Turner is most concerned about Jean-Claude Malépart, MP for Montreal’s Ste-Marie riding and a key grassroots organizer. Some Liberals say that ' the disenchanted Malépart might even leave the party—which would be a severe blow to the Liberals in east-end Montreal ridings.

Other Liberals across the country spoke privately last week of their frustration with Turner’s leadership. Said a former B.C. Liberal candidate: “People are demoralized. Everyone here is asking, ‘When are you going to get rid of that guy?’ ” Added Montrealer Jonathan Schneiderman, president of the Young Liberals: “Mr. Turner has to reflect on his style of leadership. The party is on strike right now. At best we are working to rule. We are just not inspired.”

Those same Liberals acknowleged that no one seems willing to organize a revolt against Turner. And that has enabled Turner to launch his new offensive. Said Lapierre: “Now he is ready to make the bold moves.” Those moves, some Liberals say, may be too late to be effective. Declared Schneiderman: “For John Turner, it is a few minutes to midnight.”

PAUL GESSELL

HILARY MACKENZIE

BRUCE WALLACE