Turner’s quest for a quick coronation

Mary Janigan March 12 1984

Turner’s quest for a quick coronation

Mary Janigan March 12 1984

Turner’s quest for a quick coronation


Mary Janigan

Throughout eight years of corporate exile, the John Turner myth has soothed the Liberals and unsettled the Conservatives. Any time the voters complained about the aloof Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals dreamed of replacing him with the glamorous and politically astute Turner. And whenever the Tories soared in the polls, they were haunted by the prospect that Turner would sweep back into public life from his lucrative law practice and win the next election. Now that the Prime Minister has called for a leadership convention, Turner can easily galvanize his supporters into a formidable campaign machine. But time—and a curiously vengeful Trudeau, who stayed much longer than expected—has taken its toll. Both the candidate and his closest advisers are uneasily aware that the country, the party and the government of 1984 are radically different from

those Turner knew when he resigned from cabinet in 1975. And the myths that make Turner appealing can also unmake him if he cannot live up to them.

Strength: If Turner enters the race on March 16, when he says he will announce his decision, he will have significant initial advantages over the other contenders. Although he has not officially appointed a campaign organization, he has a network of political allies across the nation. Many of those friendships were forged during his unsuccessful bid for the party leadership in 1968 and they became known as the 195 Club, after the number of votes Turner got on the fourth and final ballot. And all of the ties are based on a deep personal loyalty. Quebec MP Roland Comtois said that Turner supporters are poised to spring into action in 50 of the province’s 75 ridings. “He [Turner] does not give any instructions to anybody,” said Comtois. “We can do that by ourselves—

we know exactly what to do.”

As a candidate Turner has strong roots—and strong allies—in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. He is weak in the Atlantic provinces. His campaign manager will likely be Vancouver lawyer John Swift. Lloyd Axworthy, a former aide and now federal transport minister, will probably organize the Prairies. In Montreal former law partner James Robb, publicist John de B. Payne and Montreal Stock Exchange Director Julien Beliveau are active, and in Halifax Turner can probably count on former party president Senator AÍ Graham. Many members of the party’s elite, such as Ontario Liberal Leader David Peterson and Quebec’s André Ouellet, the federal minister of labor, support him. Disaffected party veterans, such as former party president Norman MacLeod, also back him. Senator Keith Davey, the pragmatic Trudeau loyalist, has been asking other prospective candidates to retire from

the race to make way for Turner. And some key young reformers, such as Ontario activist Alfred Apps, 27, applaud him for understanding how a party functions. “Turner is the only one with the strength to do the required housecleaning,” said Apps. “There is a wide consensus among Liberals 25 to 35 years of age that it is John Turner’s time.”

Should Turner win the Liberal crown, it will have been a long time coming for the Rhodes Scholar, lawyer and veteran politician. Born in England on June 7, 1929, the only son of a British Columbia miner’s daughter and a British journalist, he was raised to be a leader. When his father died in 1931, his mother, Phyllis, brought John and his sister, Brenda, to Ottawa and raised them on a government economist’s salary. Her jobs were challenging, and in the early war years ministers such as C.D. Howe gathered for discussions at the family home. By the time his mother married powerful Vancouver industrialist Frank Ross in 1945, Turner had absorbed “a real sense of the excitement of the public service.” In 1958 Princess Margaret danced with Turner, then a rising young lawyer, at a party Ross gave in her honor. Amid continuing transatlantic rumors of romance, the Turner legend blossomed.

Deficits: Invested with an aura of glamor, Turner advanced easily. He handily won the Liberal nomination in a Montreal riding in 1962—and then won the election. In December, 1965, Prime Minister Lester Pearson named him to the minor cabinet post of minister without portfolio and then elevated him to registrar general and consumer affairs minister. In 1968 he finished a distant third on the final ballot in the leadership race that elected Trudeau. Under the new prime minister Turner moved through the posts of solicitor general and justice minister to the powerful finance portfolio in 1972. As the Tories now point out, federal spending soared more than 20 per cent in both 1973 and 1974—when Turner was finance minister—and Canada entered a decade of big and burgeoning deficits. Turner also instituted the practice of “indexing” income tax deductions to the inflation rate, a measure that is now deplored by many cabinet ministers because it means an annual tax cut without the political credit.

Still, Turner forged an enviable reputation in international finance circles. Although his last budget, in June, 1975, was his least popular because times were getting tougher, he acquired the political sheen of a golden boy who charmed the back-benchers and reassured the business community. He was the first senior Canadian minister to be included as a member in the exclusive Big Five club of the World Bank. That

breakthrough took place during an annual bank meeting in Washington in mid-1975. Then U.S. Treasury Secretary William E. Simon invited him to join the finance ministers of Britain, France, West Germany and Japan for a meeting aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia for a cruise on the Potomac. That event led Gerald Ford, U.S. president at the time, to include Prime Minister Trudeau, for the first time— against strong French opposition—in an economic summit (in Puerto Rico). When he left cabinet abruptly in September, 1975, Turner was at the peak of his power. And when he resigned from the Commons in February, 1976, to practise law at McMillan, Binch in Toronto, the legend was intact—and almost untarnished.

Since then Turner has rarely spoken out in public, although his bitter assessments of the Trudeau government were legendary, and both the man and his policies have become clouded by his eight-year absence from public life. Both his friends and his critics continue to paint a fascinating portrait of a man who is driven to be where the action is— with the world’s “big hitters.” He firmly believes that politics is a worthy public duty and he couples that with a high sense of integrity. But he also finds politics exciting and he believes that politicians are important. He has confided to friends that if he does not run in 1984, he will probably regret the lost opportunity for the rest of his life. Trudeau told biographer George Radwanski that Turner “generally was right on when we’d be talking about politics and his feeling for the country and whether we could get by with this now or whether we couldn’t—he was a good politician.”

Scathing: In the late 1970s Turner and a law partner published a chatty corporate newsletter for select clients at $15,000 per client a year. The letters included scathing assessments of such possible leadership contenders as Energy Minister Jean Chrétien. The shortlived letters were masterful analyses of who had influence and who did not— and why. Former aide David Smith, now federal small-business minister, said that Turner knows how to assemble a good team. “And he instinctively knows and understands politics,” he added. “I remember once when I was on the phone with him, I had to go because the bells were ringing [to call MPs] for a vote. He asked me if I could just hold the phone up—he wanted to hear the bells again.”

Although he yearns occasionally for the bells, Turner has built up a good and full life in Toronto. At work he is a pricey salesman for his firm, always in on the big deals, such as representing a client bank in discussions with the pres-


ident of Mexico. He drives a Volkswagen Rabbit but he lives in an expensive house in Toronto’s Forest Hill.

His friends say that he is warm and thoughtful. Smith said that Turner often remembers his birthday before he himself does. “And he likes to recognize achievement,” added Smith. “When my wife was appointed a judge, he was so excited—he came over with two bottles of champagne to celebrate.” He enjoys such sports as skiing and squash, loves music (The Magic Flute is his favorite opera) and reads biographical and issue-oriented books. He often drops in on friends unexpectedly, sometimes in the middle of a party, grabs a drink and mixes spontaneously with complete strangers. In close gatherings he plays the piano and sings. Above all, he values his home life with his wife, Geills, the daughter of David Kilgour, president of GreatWest Life Assurance of Winnipeg. They met in'

1962 and they have four children: Elizabeth, 19,

Michael, 18, David, 16, and Andrew, 13. Turner is also a devout Roman Catholic. Every year the entire family goes canoeing in the North.

Turner has even published a pamphlet on how to avoid leaving camping traces. And he always sets aside time for family outings. “I remember that he missed cabinet to go to his daughter’s birthday party,” recalled a former Liberal aide.

Dimension: His many friends and former colleagues differ about the quality and originality of Turner’s mind. A former assistant said that Turner is not only “a quick study but he has the extra dimension of being able to appreciate the ramifications of policies.” At International Monetary Fund meetings Turner impressed fellow delegates with his ability to analyse the effects of alternative proposals on each nation. Another former colleague countered that it is difficult to estimate the depth of Turner’s intelligence “because he is so fast on his feet and because he uses buzz words and clichés and platitudes.”

Friends and former colleagues also differ about his toughness. Many believe that a deep insecurity lies just below the surface of his hearty “jock” public image. Although Turner insists that he fought the Trudeau government

spending increases, he often left the cabinet battles to his stern deputy minister, Simon Reisman. With the exception of a successful, all-out fight against a guaranteed annual income plan in early 1975, the finance minister said “no” but he rarely went to the wall. “He had no feeling, no gut, no soul,” complained a former key Liberal aide.

Perhaps because of his insecurity, Turner adopted a sportsman’s personality with out-of-date slang that he can turn on or off at will. The slang is not insincere. Turner loves sports and thoroughly enjoys the company of athletes. But his conversations are often, as one friend put it, “almost hyperactive. The laughs are often forced, the talk is cannonball. He impresses people but he does not often put them at ease.”

Turner has already paid a heavy political price for his insecurity. Trudeau biographers say that Turner quit the cabinet because he wanted what the Prime Minister could never give him: reassurance and a sense of his own worth. Turner walked into the Sept. 10, 1975, meeting with Trudeau determined to quit—but willing to be talked into staying. A shrewd judge of human character might have placated Turner’s ambition with the offer of the post of deputy prime minister and assuaged his ego with praise and a request for help. Instead, Trudeau took him at his word—that he wanted to leave—and then offended his pride with the offer of a Senate seat or a judgeship. When an angry Turner stalked out of the room, Trudeau was bewildered.

Some Liberals still hold the timing of that resignation—on the brink of an

Ontario election—against him. Others charge that he left when the economy was getting rough and that he only stayed for the good times, although those voices have been somewhat stilled by the party’s overwhelming need to find a charismatic winner. Turner and his strategists are well aware that the jocularity of the 1970s could mean an “aging jock” image in 1984. Since he left active politics, there has been a whole new generation of young Liberals, and he is out of touch with many key party reformers. Policy-minded delegates do not know where he stands on issues. And because the Liberals hope to win the next election by building a coalition of women and ethnic voters, he cannot afford to offend those groups with what might be seen as an elitist, male-dominated campaign.

Trust: If Turner does win the leadership and beats the Conservatives, his government would probably do better with the business community than a Trudeau one—if only because he has its trust, coupled with a budget record of extending corporate tax breaks. He is less a centralist than Trudeau is: in 1977 he said that the fields of culture, communications, health, welfare, resource policy, housing, urban policy, agriculture ^ and some aspects of im| migration were “negotiS able and could be largely I left to the provinces.” I But one of Turner’s probI lems is that he has not 1 formulated policies on “ current issues because he has not been fully briefed on them. When he left Ottawa there was no controversial National Energy Program. He is not familiar with the current system of running government finances through “spending envelopes,” which set strict limits on such areas as energy or social policies. And he has never worked with a government that relies on central agencies to set such overall priorities as economics or social development.

Supporters contend that Turner can learn fast. And they point out that he has a political record of insisting that ministers, not civil servants, run departments. They also say he will put more emphasis on the working of Parliament itself. If Turner runs, the question is not so much what he could do as whether he could undo the political mistakes of the recent Trudeau years. The party must decide if he is a fresh face for 1984—or a liability from 1975.