If you could cross Howard Beale, the New York anchorman in the movie Network who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” with James Hacker, the cabinet minister in the British comedy series Yes, Minister who developed a well-founded suspicion of the civil service, you would have some idea of what drives Canada’s new chief taxman. Add a generous helping of Ross Perot, the ego-charged American billionaire who launched a one-man crusade on behalf of the American middle class, and you would pretty well have him down to a T.
In Canadian terms, however, Revenue Minister Garth Turner is probably unique. Until the recent Conservative leadership race, in which he finished fourth in a field of five, Turner was little more than an object of curiosity on the Tory backbenches, a 44-year-old maverick who quoted Ayn Rand and blew off steam by playing rock n’ roll on his black Fender Stratocaster guitar. Even he shrugged off the possibility that he might one day be invited to join Ottawa’s inner circle. “People spend half their time seeking title and position,” the right-of-centre populist said in May, a few weeks before his long-shot leadership bid was crushed by Kim Campbell’s juggernaut. “If being an MP isn’t good enough, where does that leave the voters?”
A fair question, but since June 24 the former tabloid newspaper columnist has had far too much on his plate to give it much thought. That was the day Campbell aide Ray Castelli telephoned Turner and told him to be at 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s official residence, at 6 p.m. “I knocked at the front door, went in and then waited a while, surrounded by all that famous furniture,” recalls Turner, one of the very few Tory MPs who had the temerity to voice concern about Mila Mulroney’s proposed $150,000 sale of furniture to the federal government. ‘Then I was shown upstairs to a room overlooking the Ottawa River to talk to the Prime Minister.” By then, Turner was certain that he was destined for the cabinet, but he was expecting a minor portfolio—“something like consumer and corporate affairs.” He was astonished, he says, when Campbell gave him revenue, a department with 44,000 employees, 900 offices and a $2.5-billion annual budget.
That night, Turner returned to his brick semidetached house in New Edinburgh, an upscale Ottawa neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s residence, to break the news to his wife of 22 years, Dorothy. (They have no children.) “It took a while to sink in,” he says. “It was very, very nice to know that I
would finally be at the table—to make decisions that will actually affect people. But the other reaction was, ‘Am I going to lose my freedom of speech?’ It’s like walking through a door into a world I’ve never experienced.”
Now that he is there, Turner says that he wants to guard against becoming what he has always criticized—an Ottawa insider who thinks life revolves around Parliament Hill. “I spent two weeks with my nose in the briefing books and then got the hell out of Ottawa. I don’t want to talk to the bureaucrats. I want to talk to the people on the ground—the border guards, the guy taking the phone calls from John Q. Public, plus, most importantly, taxpayers.”
Turner’s instinctive wariness of the mandarins who wield power behind the scenes in Ottawa was reinforced by an experience soon after his swearing-in. During his first week as minister, he learned that the department was considering replacing its 36-year-old regional headquarters in Toronto. Turner says that he gave specific instructions to be kept informed of any developments. That weekend, he was reading through “about 1,000 pages of briefing material” when he came across a single page informing him that a news conference was scheduled for the following Monday to announce plans for a $229-million office tower. Turner immediately called his deputy minister and ordered him to cancel the announcement. “I don’t know much about how the game is played, so maybe it’s normal to try to get things past the new minister,” he says.
Turner toured the building last week and told staff that if they want a new building, they will have to convince taxpayers that it is a worthwhile expense. “The taxpayers are running the agenda now,” he says approvingly. “Look at what happened to the Senate’s $6,000 expense allowance and the [Mulroneys’] furniture deal. People demanded action and the system worked.”
Turner’s brash, antiestablishment style—critics say that it borders on demagoguery—guarantees that there will be many more battles ahead. Bom in Woodstock, Ont., he went to high school in Toronto and was once suspended, he says, for wearing Beatle boots and a string tie. After a brief spell in the late 1960s as a folk-rock musician in Yorkville, the centre of Toronto’s hippie culture, he founded the first of six weekly newspapers across southern Ontario. He sold that business in 1978 and spent the next decade as business editor of The Toronto Sun, a job in which he railed about the need for lower public spending and organized protests against rising interest rates and taxes.
Although the high public profile he gained in those years helped to win him a seat in Parliament, the switchover to politics has not been painless. As a columnist, Turner stood fourquare against the Goods and Services Tax (GST), calling the idea “dumb” and “dangerous.” He reversed his stand after becoming an MP—a fact for which many of his constituents refuse to forgive him. At a recent appearance in his riding with Campbell, a pair of hecklers shouted out, “Hey—Turncoat Turner.” Turner later blamed the interjection on “a couple of yahoos,” but dissatisfaction with his stand is clearly widespread. “As far as I’m concerned, the GST is a killer,” the owner of a local men’s wear store told Maclean’s. “You think I’ll vote Tory again? God, no.”
In most other respects, Turner’s populist style appears in step with the times. He advocates a less generous parliamentary pension plan, travels without aides and usually drives instead of flying between Ottawa and his primary residence in Georgetown, Ont., just west of Toronto. He even has a personal 1-800 number so that Canadians can leave a message for him whenever they wish; the cost runs about $200 a month, which Turner says he pays himself. A government that is trying to project an image of frugality would be hard-pressed to do any better.
The real question is whether Turner can adapt to being a team player. Already, he is embroiled in a cabinet debate over a proposal to remove the GST from books and periodicals. Veteran ministers such as Deputy Prime Minister Jean Charest and External Affairs Minister Perrin Beatty are pushing the idea as a way of demonstrating support for Canadian culture, but Turner views it as a serious mistake. “Exempting magazines and books is going to cost $120 million,” he says. “If we’re going to spend that kind of money, maybe we can find a better way.” Besides, he says, introducing new exemptions now would only magnify the complexity of the tax—which is the last thing business needs.
Will Turner, the outspoken newcomer, win that fight, or will he be forced to compromise in the interests of electoral advantage? The minister himself declines to predict the outcome. “I believe that the government needs to be supported for its broad objectives,” he says, “but things happen sometimes which are pretty distasteful and hard to support. I just hope people won’t take everything I say as government policy, or else I’ll be in deep trouble very quickly.” As Turner knows full well, that seat at the cabinet table comes at a price.
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