TURNER BATTLES THE PHANTOMS IN HIS PARTY-AND THE GRIM POLLS
BRUCE WALLACE,ROSS LAVEROctober311988
THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE
TURNER BATTLES THE PHANTOMS IN HIS PARTY-AND THE GRIM POLLS
The phantoms that have gnawed at John Turner from within his own party since 1984 simply refuse to be exorcised. Even the onset of another election campaign —once expected to impose a grudging unity on the fractious Liberal ranks—could not contain the rifts within the party. Last week, battered by his crumbling support in public opinion polls and in physical distress from a pinched nerve in his lower back, Turner faced yet another leadership crisis. The newest controversy involved reports about four of the most senior members of his election strategy committee and five prominent MPs. And despite their categorical denials that they were plotting against their leader, by the end of last week, it was unclear whether Turner—or his party—could stage a recovery in time for the Nov. 21 election. As it so often does in the era of media politics, the perception had become the reality.
Mishaps: The latest setback, combined with a succession of earlier mishaps, wiped out the positive effects of three weeks of cross-country touring by the Liberal leader. By most accounts,
Turner himself has campaigned well—delivering hard-hitting speeches against free trade with a confidence that he appeared to lack during his 1984 campaign. But in the age of saturation television scrutiny of a political
leader’s every step and gesture, candidates are judged not only by their own performances but also by their ability to run smooth, trouble-free campaigns (page 16). In that light, the confusion surrounding the Liberals’ policies on such prominent issues as child care and abortion have overshadowed Turner’s own contribution. This week, the campaign enters its second phase with back-to-back television debates and the launch of the three parties’ paid TV advertising assaults (page 20). All parties realized the critical importance of the Oct. 24 and 25 encounters. Said one senior Conservative: “The first two commercials are the debates.”
Cracks: Still, the immediate challenge facing Liberals last week was to paper over the cracks that have appeared in their campaign’s front office. For weeks, senior Liberals have complained privately that the party was being dragged down by Turner’s own low approval ratings. And last week, several campaign insiders confirmed to Maclean’s that questions were raised about Turner’s leadership during an Oct. 13 meeting of four Liberal advisers. Present were campaign co-chairmen André Ouellet and Senator Alasdair Graham, national campaign director John Webster and strategy committee chairman Senator Michael Kirby. The men discussed ways of repairing the campaign machinery and of counteracting the party’s plunge in the polls. Senior Liberal officials told Maclean’s that the strategists considered the potential impact on the party’s fortunes of a sudden change in leadership before voting day, but dismissed the idea as unrealistic.
Subsequent media reports of the meeting provoked widespread speculation of an attempt to force Turner’s resignation. “It is a lot of nonsense,” Turner responded while attending a dinner meeting in Vancouver. The four men at the centre of the reports issued a press release on Oct. 20 saying that it was “preposterous” to suggest that they had been plotting against their leader. Still, Kirby did not deny sending Turner a memorandum out5 lining the strategists’ concerns. One of those who saw
the memo was the party’s chief financial officer, Michael Robinson, who described it as “a frank assessment of the state of the campaign,” including an analysis of ominous private polling results. Robinson insisted, however, that the memo did not ask Turner to step down. Added another senior Liberal, who asked not to be identified: “To replace the leader you need absolute unanimity, and even then it is implausible. And there sure as hell was not unanimity.”
Jolt: When he returned to Ottawa for a day of rest on Oct. 15, Turner declined to meet the four advisers. Two days later, however, the Liberal campaign suffered a public jolt when Turner’s principal secretary, Peter Connolly,
told reporters on the leader’s campaign tour that the party was likely to announce a policy that would give women the right to abortions during the early stages of pregnancy—despite repeated avowals by Turner that he would abstain from the abortion debate until after the election. Connolly’s remarks—he subsequently denied making them—provoked an immediate backlash from prominent Liberal candidates, many of whom complained that they had not been consulted on the policy change. Among the disgruntled Liberals: MPs Herbert Gray and Lloyd Axworthy. Said Gray: “I thought it was timely that I and some senior
MPs met the leader to discuss the progress of the campaign.”
But Connolly, who travels with the Liberal leader on the campaign plane, disagreed. His refusal to grant Gray’s telephoned request to see Turner sparked a serious schism between Connolly and other senior Liberals, who have long complained about their limited access to the party leader. Said one influential Liberal in the Ottawa campaign headquarters: “I think that Peter has demonstrated poor judgment,” but added that trying to do something about Connolly now might do more harm to the campaign than “the damage that his musings
have cost.” At week’s end, Turner defended his old associate, telling reporters in Ottawa: “I’ve got confidence in Peter Connolly.” Damage: Most observers contend that the damage has been severe. Although Turner told associates as recently as two weeks ago that he still believes he can win 70 seats in Ontario alone, most pollsters agree that Turner’s assessment is wildly optimistic. Liberal officials in the party’s Toronto headquarters told Maclean ’s that several candidates across the country have formally requested that Turner not make an appearance in their constituencies. MP Charles Caccia, present for a policy announce-
ment by Turner last week in Beauceville, Que., told Maclean ’s that he did not want his leader to campaign in his Toronto riding. Said Ontario campaign chairman Norman MacLeod about last week’s crisis: “I am going to spend a lot of time talking to candidates to try to settle them down because it is very unnerving.”
Despair: A sign of just how low Liberal spirits have sunk was the palpable despair among party workers last week in the Toronto riding of Broadview-Greenwood. Liberal candidate Dennis Mills, a millionaire businessman, has already spent $100,000 in an attempt to defeat NDP incumbent Lynn McDonald. But when news about the latest Liberal crisis broke last week, Mills said that he was left too distraught to knock on doors. Instead, Mills and his campaign workers spent five hours drinking coffee and reading each other excerpts from former football coach Vincent Lombardi’s book The Green Bay Packers. Said Mills: “Now we are carrying two burdens: the tough fight locally and the national campaign disaster. It seems that you have to have somebody on standby in the office just to take the daily shock waves.”
But the Liberals’ most severe difficulties are in Quebec. Part of the problem stems from the unpopularity in that province of both Turner and his stand against free trade. And what makes matters much worse for the Liberals is that Turner’s Quebec lieutenant, MP Raymond Garneau, continues to wage an open feud with influential Quebec Liberals Francis Fox and Ouellet. Said Pierre Deniger, a former Liberal MP who is running again in the Montreal-area riding of La Prairie: “If the polls remain the same, no Liberal will win a seat in Quebec.”
Gloom: Despite that gloomy outlook, some Quebec Liberals said that they were surprised to discover that the leadership issue had resurfaced in midcampaign. Said Deniger: “It is absolutely unthinkable and unimaginable that we would change leaders now. Someone is conducting a destabilization campaign from within the top levels of the party.” Indeed, that suspicion set many Liberals scrambling to uncover the source of the most recent rumblings of discontent over Turner’s leadership. Said Kirby, whose own performance has drawn criticism from some Turner loyalists: “Everyone is looking for a scapegoat.”
The question on the minds of many Liberals was whether their traditional supporters would still be willing to vote for a party so obviously at war with itself. And some Liberals who are looking beyond the Nov. 21 vote predicted that the wounds inflicted over the past four years— and reopened last week—would not heal easily. Said Toronto political consultant David MacNaughton: “After this election, there will be no love lost by Liberals attempting to rebuild the party for those who chose to dump on the leader—or on each other.”
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