CANADA

The long fight back

BRUCE WALLACE May 16 1988
CANADA

The long fight back

BRUCE WALLACE May 16 1988

The long fight back

CANADA

After beating back a series of assaults on his leadership, John Turner sought refuge far from the political turbulence of Ottawa—and the internal divisions in the Liberal party’s Quebec wing. At a community meeting in Turner’s home riding of Vancouver Quadra last week, a sympathetic overflow crowd of 900 gave the federal Liberal leader two standing ovations during a two-hour-long question-and-answer session. Although the spectre of the most serious challenge yet to Turner’s leadership was not fully dispelled, he appeared to draw strength from the welcome extended by local Liberals. But at times even that support carried overtones that could endanger the party’s fragile unity. At one point,

Renée Bellas, a Liberal from Richmond, B.C., took the microphone to declare:

“We are going to send a message to the Quebec wing. We are not going to stand by and watch them trash John Turner.”

The threat of an antiQuebec backlash from Turner loyalists in anglophone Canada arose through one of the most traumatic weeks in the Liberal party’s history. In the wake of the abortive April 27 caucus revolt against him, Turner had to

defend himself against his internal critics and wage a bitter fight against a grassroots uprising against him in Quebec. With concern growing over the party’s $6.2-million debt, Turner’s supporters went on the offensive to demand an accounting from Michel Robert, the party’s president and chief financial officer. Later in the week, following a meeting in Ottawa of the party’s management committee, Robert announced that he had asked Turner to relieve him of his

duties as financial officer and that Turner had agreed. But after the party’s convulsions, Liberals wondered aloud how badly the infighting would damage—perhaps permanently—the party. Said Senator Alasdair Graham, a Turner loyalist: “I am not naïve. The party is wounded.” But Turner himself gave no indication that he was about to step down in the face of criticism.

The ordeal began when Quebec Senator Pietro Rizzuto met Turner at the

leader’s home in Ottawa on April 25 to tell him that 22 of the 39 Liberal MPs had signed letters demanding that Turner quit. At the caucus meeting the next day, many of the members openly questioned Turner’s ability to lead the party to victory in an election expected this year. But Turner stood his ground, and within days many of the rebels were backing him in public. Then Turner fought back early last week. On May 2 he fired Rizzuto, a prolific fund raiser who had called for Turner’s resignation, from his position as the party’s national campaign co-chairman. And by late last week almost all of the disenchanted Liberal MPs were issuing calls for party unity behind Turner. “The purpose was not to get Mr. Turner’s head at any price,” said Quebec MP Jean Lapierre, as he returned to the fold. “The fact that it became public is a tragedy for Liberals.” But more discontent flared in Quebec. In an attempt to stave off a simmering revolt against Turner among Quebec riding associations, the leader’s Quebec lieutenant, Raymond Garneau, called for an endorsement of Turner’s leadership at a hastily convened meeting of the Quebec party executives in Montreal on May

1. But the plan backfired when the committee produced only a lukewarm statement of support. Then 10 Quebec riding presidents called a press conference to issue demands that Turner resign. Said one riding president of Turner’s leadership: “He just does not have the punch.”

As the week wore on, some of Turner’s top advisers demanded vengeance against his opponents. Their most prominent target was Robert. Turner loyalists blamed him for persist-

ent confusion about the state of the party’s finances as well as for rumors that party funds have been used to pay for Turner’s personal expenses. Following the management committee meeting in Ottawa, Robert told reporters that the search for a new chief financial officer had begun. Robert added that the committee, made up of senior party officials from across the country, strongly endorsed Turner as leader. In a reference to the party’s divisions, Robert said: “We have passed a corner. I think things are settling down.” Still, there was an inescapable threat that the party infighting would not subside.

At the same time, Turner’s critics charged that his inability to control the feud in Quebec—which incubated for more than a year before exploding

into the caucus revolt—was the most damning indictment yet of his leadership. According to senior party sources, the uprising was only the latest skirmish in a political battle that had been developing ever since a national convention rejected calls for a leadership review in November, 1986, two years after Turner took over the party’s helm. On that occasion he received the support of 76 per cent of the delegates. But Turner charged last week in British Columbia that the attempts to overthrow him were inspired by “forces outside caucus who never accepted the democratic verdict” of the 1986 vote. Still, others noted that many of those Liberals who openly challenged Turner’s leadership —including Rizzuto and Lapierre—had been among his staunchest and most dedicated supporters at the 1986 convention.

The continuing malaise clearly dispirited many of Turner’s onetime allies. Said Lapierre: “Maybe I was a

dreamer. But I dreamed that we could maintain the spirit of the November convention forever.” Instead, he and other former Turner loyalists said last week that support for the leader began to dissolve almost immediately after the convention. As one Turner confidant put it: “He had an opportunity after November, 1986, to assert himself. But in the months after the convention he just drifted, and all the momentum was lost.”

The leadership void was most noticeable in Quebec—and it allowed a bitter rivalry to develop between two of Turner’s top men in the province. Rizzuto, who had been instrumental in shoring up Turner’s support among Quebec delegates to the leadership review, had demanded a more prominent

role in the party structure. The Italian-born businessman, who came to Canada at age 20 and amassed a personal fortune as the owner of a Quebec paving company, was recruited into the Liberal party in the mid-1970s by former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Marc Lalonde. A successful fund raiser, under Turner Rizzuto had also become president of the Liberal electoral commission in Quebec, which is responsible for organizing election campaigns and recruiting candidates.

But in his attempt to take on a more visible role in Quebec, Rizzuto clashed with Garneau—a former Montreal banker and provincial finance minister from 1970 to 1976. Garneau is widely regarded within Liberal circles as a principled politician with limited organizational skills. According to friends of both men, Garneau opposed Rizzuto’s attempts to combine the tasks of fund-raising and political organization in Quebec on the grounds that that would inevitably give rise to accusa-

tions of political corruption. Said Garneau last week: “It is not healthy or desirable to allow the financial people to have leverage over candidates.” Turner apparently agreed. Last July he named Garneau to head the electoral commission and designated him Quebec lieutenant—a coveted position that gave Garneau control over the Liberal party machine in Quebec. In an effort to placate Rizzuto, Turner appointed him co-chairman of the party’s National Election Readiness Committee. But the job removed Rizzuto from grassroots fund-raising efforts in Quebec. And according to Quebec Liberals, Turner did not endear himself to Rizzuto when he gave a rambling, uninspired speech at a private party thrown in his honor by Rizzuto at his

handsome waterside house in Laval, Que., last June.

Rizzuto aired his complaints during a private meeting with Turner in his Ottawa office last August, after which he agreed to soldier on. But the criticism of Garneau from other influential Quebec Liberals began almost immediately after. Garneau’s troubles mounted last winter when he lost the support of veteran Quebec MP André Ouellet. Ouellet discovered that his close friendship with Turner was of little influence after Garneau became Quebec lieutenant. And associates said that Ouellet had become increasingly worried in recent months about the party’s electoral prospects.

Although much of the unhappiness within Quebec’s Liberal ranks focused on Garneau, there were other sources of irritation as well. Said Lapierre: “A lot of people found it difficult to work with Garneau. But that alone would not have been enough to ignite people against Turner.” Perhaps the biggest problem,

some Liberals said, was the lack of communication between Turner and the rest of the party. Said one official close to the leader: “People were complaining that they could never get to see the leader. It was as though an Iron Curtain had been thrown up around his office.” Senior Liberals said that even Rizzuto and Robert were among those who felt cut off by Turner.

Although Turner appeared last week to have stared down his critics, he still faced enormous problems in preparing the Liberal machine for an election. Most damaging to the party’s electoral chances was the mounting debt, now widely believed to be even higher than the $6.2 million which party officials admitted to last month. In addition, there was widespread confusion about how much money is owed to individual riding associations.

Privately, Turner’s supporters accused Robert of spreading stories about Turner’s spending habits—rumors that helped fuel the caucus mutiny. Among the most damaging: that Turner and his wife, Geills, were spending party funds on clothes; that the $33,000 spent by the party on Turner’s Toronto apartment included an allowance for a maid; and that private trust funds had been used to send Turner delegates to the November, 1986, convention.

Last week sources close to Turner acknowledged that the party had indeed spent money on his wardrobe. But they defended that decision on the grounds that he is required to make frequent

public appearances on behalf of the party. Said one official: “Anyone who is stupid enough to criticize spending money to look good on television is crazy. I only wish the party would spend more on his suits—or at least get a new tailor for him.” For his part, Turner did not respond specifically to the various allegations, but his office denied last week

that it had overspent its budget or had failed to account properly for its spending.

As well, the Liberals will face difficulty in the Commons during the coming debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord. The Turner camp faces the prospect of nearly half of its MPs voting against the agreement, which Turner supports, although he wants changes. Last week Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government postponed that debate, probably until the end of the month, a move that clearly worried Turner’s advisers. Admitted one: “There is nothing we want more than to get that thing behind us.”

Indeed, the divisions in the party over such fundamental issues as Meech Lake and the free trade agreement with the United States made it unlikely that any leader could easily paper over the split. Said Liberal Senator Michael Kirby: “Like Canadians, the Liberal party is passionately divided over the issues of the day. And any leader would face the same divisions.” As he toured his boyhood home town of Rossland, B.C., last week, Turner appeared to relish the chance to mingle with voters far from what one aide termed “the cesspool of Ottawa.” But many Liberals still doubted that he was prepared to begin dealing with the underlying tensions that sparked the revolt in the first place.

BRUCE WALLACE

ROSS LAVER

HILARY MACKENZIE

MICHAEL ROSE

JANE O’HARA