Most federal campaigns in this country are fought along so many regional splits and on such diverse local issues that voting day feels like a coincidental coming-together of 282 byelections. Clusters of new MPs assume the pomposity of office without disturbing the essential rhythm of the governmental process.
But not this time.
By the time this column is published Canadians will have installed a new political order. Two decades of Liberal rule proved to be enough. Brian Mulroney won the election, but the Liberals defeated themselves.
Try as he might, the cosmology of John Turner’s appeal seldom moved beyond the plea that his party should be returned because he wanted to retain power. He seemed uncomfortable from the start of the campaign. And as election day approached, Turner’s flash appearances took on the taste of panic. Machine-gunning his way through some ghost writer’s laborious jottings, the Liberal leader gave little evidence of projecting any coherent view of the future or of being in touch with the gut concerns of his audiences.
Brian Mulroney has earned the right to occupy the centre of the political stage. But John Turner faces much more immediate tests of his character and leadership. He must prove to a humbled but still-powerful political movement that he has the heart, the will and the stamina to remain as Liberal leader and is willing to wean the party back into contention. This will initially involve assuming full responsibility for the Liberal defeat, an early assertion of his leadership against the inevitable calls for Jean Chrétien to succeed him, and an immediate start on rebuilding the tattered remains of the once-invincible party’s political machine.
His timetable is tight. A Liberal caucus is being convened in the second week of September. This post-mortem on the election will bring together not only the new Liberal MPs but all those who didn’t make it back under Turner’s leadership. Unlike the Tories, who genuinely surprise themselves whenever they happen to win an election, the Liberals consider holding office a God-given right, leaving Turner to do a lot of fast explaining. The party has called a Refprm Convention for October, 1985, and even though a leadership review is not on the agenda, little else is likely to be discussed.
The Liberal party is planning to hold its next formal party meeting in 1986, when an accountability session and leadership review will head the official order of business.
One of the more cruel anomalies of Turner’s current situation is that because of the reduced House of Commons contingent, senators will play a much more significant role within the Liberal caucus. They will prevent Turner from dismantling any of the policy initiatives
that originated during the Trudeau years. By filling the Senate with his ideological soul mates, Trudeau has, in effect, perpetuated his own retroactive government in the Upper House.
Apart from defending himself against this internal threat to what is his main source of authority, Turner’s most pressing assignment will be to start rebuilding bridges to Quebec. By repudiating Pierre Trudeau outside Quebec during the campaign and appearing soft on Bill 101 within French Canada, Turner sent a message to the formerly impregnable Liberal stronghold that he
had no intention of perpetuating the bicultural efforts of his predecessors. All this was happening at the same time as Mulroney was waging a brave defence of French-language rights in Manitoba—in effect donning the Trudeau mantle and earning French Canada’s votes in return.
Despite this grave strategic error, Turner’s advisers are shell-shocked by the speed of Quebec’s desertion from the Liberal cause. Partly this was due to Quebec wanting to have its native son in power—and Mulroney qualified almost as well as Trudeau—but there was more to it than that. Ever since Confederation, Quebec has been the most skilful province in knowing how to play the politics of self-interest—as opposed to the West, which tends to vote on the basis of emotions. That explains why western voters are so volatile and why British Columbia and the Prairie provinces so seldom attain the political clout their economic strength deserves.
Apart from negotiating a separate peace with Quebec, Turner must try to return Canadian Liberalism to its genuine roots as the party that reflects middle-class aspirations, fulfils ethnic expectations and initiates fresh political ideas. The Liberal party has been flying on automatic for a long time, its policy matrix having been set at the Kingston policy conference of 1960. The Kingston innovations-universal medicare, minimum wages, old-age pensions, among others—were all redistributive measures predicated on a federal government with a large and growing surplus looking for ways to provide its citizens with social dividends. That is no longer true. The Canadian government is bankrupt.
Ironically, some of the ideas for revitalizing the Liberal party may come out of the final report of the Macdonald commission, that troupe of forgotten pranksters who have been wandering the country for the past year, looking for an excuse to justify their fancy salaries. (When the Trudeau cabinet first discussed forming that royal commission one of its boosters remarked, “These guys could provide us with the policies we can govern by.” To which a more realistic colleague replied, “Or the kind of policies we’ll need to help us out of opposition with.”)
The Liberal party lost the election because, after two decades of holding power, it had grown corrupt and lost the will and competence to govern. John Turner’s most pressing assignment is to prove that this is a curable condition.
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