Closeup/Politics

The Turner campaign

Never mind what he says. Watch what he does

Robert Lewis March 21 1977
Closeup/Politics

The Turner campaign

Never mind what he says. Watch what he does

Robert Lewis March 21 1977

The Turner campaign

Closeup/Politics

Never mind what he says. Watch what he does

Robert Lewis

Eighteen months have passed since John Turner resigned as Pierre Trudeau’s finance minister, subsequently gave up his parliamentary seat and plunged into the busy and lucrative business of a Bay Street lawyer swathed in a half dozen prestigious company directorships. Yet far from the political fray as he may be—in a physical sense at least—John Napier Turner, 42, has hardly ceased to be a potent force on the ever-changing Canadian political landscape. In virtually any discussion of federal politics these days, the future of the man who quit the cabinet after disagreements with the government over economic policy is still a hotly and sometimes anxiously debated topic. When the shaky federal Liberals stage a policy workshop in Toronto this month, Turner’s name is bound to figure heavily in corridor conversations. His not infrequent speeches invariably generate large headlines: TURNER SPEAKS OUT; MESSAGE FROM MR. TURNER. Quite simply, says Dalton Camp, the Conservative backroom boy and newspaper columnist, “the most talked about politician in the country today is a retired one— John Turner.”

Wherever Turner goes he exudes that unmistakable star quality, which, with the exception of Pierre Trudeau and the young John Diefenbaker, is so rare a commodity in Canadian politics/ In Toronto they say that Turner is the only man who shakes hands on all four comers of King and Bay streets at lunch time. And there are those who are convinced that he eats five lunches a day, since people are forever reporting a sighting. He goes to work each day in the most plebian manner: first on foot, then by bus to a subway that lets him off beneath the bronzed and elegant towers of the Royal Bank building. Yet a lawyer who strolled five blocks with Turner recently reported that “he shook hands with more people than I know.”

What is this brisk, glad-handing fellow smiling about, and what does he want? Answer: nothing less than the prime ministership of Canada, for which he has groomed himself all his adult life. Conservative leader Joe Clark’s people know that and make a point of regularly knocking Citizen Turner just in case he ends up being their principal opponent in the next federal election. Trudeau’s Liberals know it too; when Pierre Trudeau was last asked about John Turner his barbed rejoinder was: “John Who?” Jittery though his political opponents may be, the question of whether Turner will ever achieve his most ardent desire remains very much an open one. When Lester B. Pearson stepped down as Liberal chieftain in 1968, Turner seemed a likely heir—until Trudeau snatched the prize away. Trudeau is still there and, after surviving a cycle of precipitous ups and downs, appears to be riding taller in the saddle again—particularly after his tough and eloquent response to Quebec’s election of a separatist Parti Québécois government, and after his wellpublicized and generally successful trip to Jimmy Carter’s Washington. As an old Turner supporter grudgingly noted of the PM: “The streaker has done it again. He strikes out a lot, but he can still hit home runs.”

In practical terms, it would appear now that Turner has only three chances of at-

taining his goal: 1) if Trudeau were to retire (not likely); 2) if Trudeau were to be dumped by the Liberals (highly improbable); 3) if Trudeau were to lose the next election (possible). In any of those eventualities, Turner would swiftly make his move, and would even be available to head a coalition government—should such an unlikely circumstance ever arise. There is even an outside chance that Turner would return to cabinet, but only if Trudeau made a strong appeal and if it appeared that Turner would be the party’s certain choice to succeed Trudeau.

Still, on the face of it, Turner today is a man withdrawn from politics, taking a new look at life and building a legal career. “I am just not in the interview game,” Turner said when I asked for one. “I’m just minding my own business here in action central. I haven’t been to a political meeting since I left [Ottawa].” True, if the word is not spelled with a capital P. But consider some dates: in March, 1976, Turner joined an old, established Toronto law firm, a couple of boards of directors and gave a speech to the Economic Council of Ontario a month after resigning his seat. In April he joined three more boards and granted an interview to The Financial Post on international monetary policy. In August, after a summer break, he spoke to the Canadian Bar Association, advocating a freedom of information law with rather more vigor than he ever seemed to as a minister; then last September, Turner gave an interview to Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwynn in which he all but admitted that he is available as Liberal leader when and if he is called.

And for all of his ostensible reticence, there is little room for doubt on the score of what John Turner thinks of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He believes that Trudeau is destroying the Liberal party, has polarized the country and is using René Lévesque’s election in Quebec as a means of clinging to power. He believes that if Trudeau were a mere anglophone, the party would have moved to unseat him. Nor has Turner much time for Trudeau’s cabinet. He once asked a Montreal industrialist: “Which one of those idiots would you hire?” He thinks that morale in Ottawa’s civil service is at a low ebb, remarking to one associate recently that “there is no tang in the town any more.”

Publicly, Turner has avoided open attacks on Trudeau, though he has come close. His private reflections, fueled by the bitter memory of Trudeau’s insulting, lastminute offer, at the time of Turner’s cabinet resignation, to appoint him to the bench or Senate, provide the backdrop for several pointed critiques offered up in some of his speeches:

• At Toronto’s Primrose Club last November, in a surefooted analysis three days after the Quebec election, Turner implicitly criticized Trudeau by declaring that “it is not enough to say that we shall not negotiate separation—that Canada is one and indivisible.”

• Before the Ontario Economic Council last March he pointedly noted that applying Galbraithian interventionist economic theory to Canada was “absurd,” called for an early end to wage and price controls and addressed himself directly to Trudeau: “The Prime Minister warns us that we must change our attitudes. I doubt that we can change men’s motives, including the drive for material benefit.” Pri-

vately, on the same theme, he has said in the slangy style he sometimes affects: “Greed is what makes the world tick, baby.”

In the first-class section of a recent CP Air midmoming flight to Calgary, Turner is feeling apprehensive. He mulls over notes for a speech he will deliver that night as the headliner at a nonpartisan political fundraising bash for Conservative MP Jack Horner, who spilled $278,000 worth of red ink in his unsuccessful campaign last year for the Tory leadership. When Homer first invited him, Turner wasn’t at all sure that he should attend. “I’ll have to bounce that [the invitation] off some walls,” he told Homer. Now, having accepted—“I told him it wouldn’t do him any harm to be seen in Calgary with Jack Homer,” says JackTurner debates whether or not to twit his old Commons pal as a fiscal conservative who couldn’t even balance his own books.

As the roast was about to begin, other speakers on the platform chatted, reviewed their texts and polished off their atier-dinner liqueurs. Not John Turner. He fixed the $100-a-plate crowd with a pensive look, pursed his lips and tried to read the mood of those present. A moment laiei, a faint grin creased his handsome face and he nodded. He liked what he saw in this noisy room of oilmen and ranchers. 1 umer abandoned his dig at Homer’s finances and, after a few harmless barbs, launched into a glowing testimonial to Homer as “my kind of Tory.”

Next morning, in the predawn darkness, a .at and driver supplied by Stan Schumachei, the MP who outgunned Tory leader Joe Clark to win the High River, Alberta, constituency as his riding in the next electum, waited for Turner outside his hotel. Alter throwing his bag in the trunk, Turner moved instinctively for the front seat opposite the driver—the seat that politicians on the stump customarily occupy when fhey tiavel by car. It was not evident whethei the move was intentional, but fully a year after resigning from parliament it was clear that he has not lost his campaigner’s touch.

While in Calgary, Turner had other engagements. His host at one was the Right Hon. Lord Shaughnessy, otherwise known as just plain Bill, a vice-president of Canada Northwest Land Ltd. and one of the new boys in the rich North Sea oil play. It was just a small private lunch of Calgary tycoonery; after all, Shaughnessy had known Turner since the days in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, when the Shaughnessys summered not far from the compound on the St. Croix River owned by John s stepfather, the late Frank Ross, former Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia. After the Homer roast there was another private gathering—post-midnight drinks with a group of Calgary lawyers.

For all the political talk that centres on t urner, it may well be that the man has

slipped too far into corporate Canada to ever come back. He joined the Toronto law firm of McMillan Binch as a senior partner at a time when the venerable firm was weak at the top. He did not go there to bury himself in the mysteries of the legal code, but to put the place back on the map. He probably earns something in the region of $125,000 a year as a corporation lawyer and another $25,000 or so for sitting on boards, including those of MacMillan Bloedel, Canadian Pacific and the Canadian Investment Fund. He has a $200,000 house in Toronto’s exclusive Forest Hill district and time, after the hectic years in Ottawa, to go to the theatre with his wife, Geills, to ski at Collingwood with their four children and sun himself during a 10day break, as he did last month. He is trimmer and looks younger than he did as a disgruntled finance minister under Trudeau.

At McMillan Binch, along with senior partner William Macdonald, Turner has taken over the leadership and, says a lawyer from a rival law firm, “he’s been a real tonic.” He is hustling accounts from the corporate elite of the country. Given the weighty quality of McMillan Binch’s clients, which include the Royal Bank and Algoma Steel, Turner is also in the thick of major deal-making. Never a wealthy man—appearances to the contrary—he now has long-term security. Moreover, he has spun himself a web of corporate cousins who have never been known for the common touch. Turner’s seatmates on the board of Ian Sinclair’s Canadian Pacific, for example, include Arnold Hart of the Bank of Montreal. Earle McLaughlin of the Royal Bank and Jake Moore of Brascan. Hart is also chairman of Canadian Investment Fund, where Turner is a director. The board of the Royal Bank, which does business with Turner’s firm, includes the irrepressible Sinclair, Allan Burton of Simpsons, Paul Paré of Imasco, E. P. Tay-

lor and W. O. Twaits, former head of Imperial Oil. Turner’s partner, Bill Macdonald, is on the board at Victoria and Grey Trust and put together the blue-chip lobbies against tax reform and competition policy when they were tabled in parliament. Says an old friend, when asked whether Turner still yearns for political leadership: “He’s flattered about the stories in the press every once in a while, but the political adrenalin isn’t flowing as much any more.”

Perhaps not. But at his law firm, some of the juniors, who do much of the actual legal slogging for Turner, have concluded that Tumer’s stay there will be very temporary. “He just doesn’t seem much interested in practising law,” says one. “He spends a lot of his time talking on the telephone.”

On the other hand, there is no evidence of any plot by Turner backers to attempt a party putsch on his behalf. Indeed, his closest adherents, now involved in other pursuits, are united mainly by the sour fact that they are out of the party’s mainstream with none of the clout they once possessed. But planned orchestration isn’t always necessary. As one intimate observes, “John Turner has an awful lot of friends across the country and they don’t want to see his name forgotten.”

Dormant though it is, there is still a Turner network. “The day the whistle is blown,” says one observer, “they will be there.” In fact, many of the old Turner supporters from the 1968 leadership convention have now moved into key jobs under Trudeau. Vancouver lawyer Paul Plant and Winnipeg urbanologist Lloyd Axworthy have been designated as campaign chairmen in their respective provinces. Tom Axworthy, Lloyd’s brother, is now a staffer in Trudeau’s office. Toronto communications lawyer Gerry Graftstein is a prominent Trudeau operative. In Montreal there is John de B. Payne, publicist and Liberal back roomer since the Pearson

era. In Ottawa, there is Simon Reisman, Turner’s old deputy at finance who, along with James Grandy, another former Turner deputy minister, have opened a consulting business for clients doing business with government. Even the present cabinet reportedly has some Turner fans, including Trade Minister Jean Chrétien. Defense Minister Barney Danson and Energy Minister Alastair Gillespie.

Those around Trudeau have a kind of paranoia about Turner, to the point that they often ask reporters what they’ve heard about him. Strategy tends to be plotted with one eye on Joe Clark and two ears on John Turner. This tension was almost palpable when Turner showed up for a testimonial dinner for Mitchell Sharp last month in Toronto. Turner and Trudeau did not meet, although that presumably could have been arranged had either man been willing. With few exceptions, most members of cabinet avoided Turner and he left the hotel as soon as the speeches ended.

What Turner perhaps knows best of all is timing. Right now the political tide appears to be running against him. After the Quebec election there were Liberals who felt that Trudeau should go, but such talk has all but vanished since Trudeau’s forceful anti-separatist speech in Quebec City and his Washington visit. Turner loyalists are not convinced. “Trudeau or no Trudeau,” says one, “if the party is lagging by 10% in the Gallup poll by the time of our party convention this fall, the PM’S position will be almost untenable.” Last fall, when Trudeau looked vulnerable, there were some fairly open moves against him. At a BC Liberal convention, some delegates, calling themselves “The Gold Watch Committee,” collected dimes and quarters in the corridors to buy the PM a timepiece. Around the same time, the Manitoba Liberal council narrowly defeated a resolution calling for a leadership convention.

The chances of similar rumblings in the near future are remote. While Trudeau enjoys no great personal rapport with his party, the Liberals have a long-standing tradition of not dumping their leaders. Trudeau, who has been reading the diaries of that great political survivor, Mackenzie King, also made it clear last spring he will not be forced out. “If I found in my own ranks that a certain number of guys wanted to cut my throat,” he warned, “I’d make sure I cut their throats first.” In any event, Turner, comfortably settled into the world of free enterprise, will probably make no overt opening moves. But, says a friend, “John would not turn his back on his country or his party. Look,” he adds only half jokingly, “we Liberals were bom to govern. If that birthright is threatened, watch out.” O