PAUL GESSELL December 8 1986


PAUL GESSELL December 8 1986




Even before the result was known, the champagne was on ice. So confident was John Turner that delegates to the Liberal party’s national convention would vote over-whelmingly to keep him as their leader that a bubbly celebration had been planned for Stornoway, the opposition leader’s official residence in Ottawa. On the day of decision, Turner breakfasted on boiled eggs and toast, conferred with aides and then attended mass, as he does almost every Sunday, at St. Joseph’s Church. After stopping to chat with parishioners, Turner went to his suite on the 24th floor of an Ottawa hotel to put the final touches on his closing remarks. Then, at 1:19 p.m. Turner took a seat in the fourth row of the Ottawa Congress Centre with his wife, Geills. He had decided to receive the vote result before the unwavering gaze of the television cameras—minutes before it was announced to the delegates. Their verdict: 2,001, or 76.3 per cent, had voted to reaffirm Turner as leader of their party, and only 622, or 23.7 per cent, wanted him to step down and call a leadership convention. Declared Turner: “Now I know that I have your confidence.”

Clear; The outcome almost certainly means that opposition to Turner’s leadership will fade quickly. It also dashes the hopes of many that Jean Chrétien, the man Turner edged out in the party’s 1984 leadership race, would be the Liberal leader by the next election. Chrétien supporter Jacques Corriveau conceded that Turner had won a clear mandate, but voiced disappointment that delegates “didn’t analyse carefully what will happen two years from now” in the next election. Turner supporters were jubilant. Said Douglas Frith, co-chairman of the convention: “It’s a tremendous affirmation of Mr. Turner. He does not have to worry about looking over his shoulder.”

The vote was Turner’s biggest test in more than two years—since he led the Liberals to their most humiliating defeat ever on Sept. 4, 1984. That night, with the Liberals reduced to just 40 seats in the House of Commons, Turner said that he would rebuild the party from the bottom up. To fulfil that pledge, he crisscrossed the country repeatedly, meeting rank-and-file Liberals in church basements and

hockey rinks. Those were the people whom Turner desperately needed to support him.

Lunch: Just a week before the convention, Turner’s closest advisers told him that their count of delegates showed he would win. He confided to a friend over lunch: “If they’re telling me the truth, I’m home free. And if they’re lying to me, I wouldn’t want to stay anyway.” The campaign was a

searing ordeal—but one that Turner endured with dignity.

Even before the convention officially opened Thursday evening—amid the usual blizzard of balloons, bands and booze—there were some tense moments between Turner’s friends and his foes. Moments after the leader delivered a luncheon speech to 500 members of the party’s youth wing, proreview delegates tried to raise a banner saying “Review 86.” Exuberant Turner supporters immediately tore it to shreds, threw glasses of water on some dissidents and jostled others. Even Turner loyalists were disgusted with their colleagues. Said Lloyd Wilks of Toronto: “These are not Liberal delegates, they are animals.”

Right from the start, Turner and his supporters went on the offensive. Turner repeatedly portrayed himself as the leader of new forces in the Lib-

eral party—determined to end the influence of the so-called “old guard” that he blamed for efforts to undermine him. He won cheers when he said that the new Liberal headquarters building opened last week in downtown Ottawa made architectural history by having no back rooms. “The clock will not be turned back,” Turner told a throng of youth delegates. “And I say to those who don’t like it, ‘tough.’ ”

Turner’s principal target was a group of senior Liberals who occupied top party positions under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and who had urged a review of Turner’s leadership. Among them: Senator Keith Davey, the onetime Liberal campaign chairman, and Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s former strongman in Quebec. They were the loudest voices calling on delegates to oppose Turner and choose a new leader better able to develop policies, raise money and stop what they saw as the Liberals’ drift to the right.

Sniped: For weeks before the convention the pro-review forces sniped at Turner, pointing to opinion polls showing that he is less popular than his party. Turner acknowledged the problem ruefully in his keynote address to the convention on Saturday: “I felt like I was a sitting duck in a shooting arcade, not knowing who was going to

take the next shot.” But at least before the results of the Sunday vote were announced, several public opinion polls indicated that Turner would win a decisive majority—in the range of 70per-cent support.

Most of Turner’s speeches and appearances in bear-pit debating sessions were calculated to win over specific

groups of delegates. The youth wing welcomed his condemnations of backroom strategists. And when he addressed the party’s women’s commission, Turner humbled himself by recalling an embarrassing 1984 election campaign incident, when television cameras caught him patting party president Iona Campagnolo’s rump.

Said Turner: “This reformed bum-patter has come a long way in two years.” Throughout the convention, Turner worked hard to deflect criticism that he has not spelled out where he stands on key issues. He repeatedly castigated Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government for compromising Canadian sovereignty in free trade talks with the Americans (page 24). Turner called for an elected Senate, said that a Liberal government would introduce a national child care program and won a standing ovation after outlining his proposals for getting the Quebec government to sign the constitutional accord adopted by the other provinces in 1982. While calling for recognition of the distinct character of Quebec, Turner denied that his policies run counter to Trudeau’s vision of Canada. Trudeau did not attend the convention: he was in Hawaii for a meeting of the InterAction Council, a group of former world leaders. But when Turner invoked the Trudeau record in his Saturday speech, the delegates cheered enthusiastically.

Mobbed: Although the pro-review forces appeared on the defensive from the start, the man who symbolized their movement created a sensation merely by arriving at the convention. Chrétien, who ran second to Turner at the Liberals’ 1984 leadership convention, was mobbed as his car stopped at a hotel adjoining the Ottawa Congress Centre. Journalists and television cameramen surrounded Chrétien and bulldozed their way through crowds of Liberals, knocking some people over and sending four to hospital with minor injuries. At one point in the crush of journalists, supporters and onlookers, Chrétien appeared panic-stricken as his own bodyguards attempted to pull him in two different directions. Later, Chrétien jousted with reporters, refusing to say anything about his leadership aspirations. “It’s a tough job for Chrétien to say nothing in three months,” he said. “So I am not about to start today.” Despite that silence, Chrétien’s mere presence put an extra edge on the proceedings. Polls released on the eve of the convention showed him to be more popular than Turner among voters. But the former MP from Shawinigan maintained that he was not aligned with the pro-review forces. However, it appeared that most members of the movement supported him in 1984 and would

do so again if a new leadership convention were called. Said Heather Allen, a Chrétien supporter from Savary Island, B.C.: “I believe he was the best man then and the best man now.”

The real battles between Turner loyalists and pro-review Liberals were waged not on the convention floor but in back rooms and hallways. Each morning about 100 members of a group formally called The Friends of John Turner—they called themselves “The Hoopla Committee”—met over coffee to discuss tactics for the political war against what they called the “contras.” The chairmen of the meetings were Jean Lapierre, MP for Quebec’s Shefford riding, and Terry Popowich, a key Turner loyalist from Toronto. A well-organized army of supporters equipped with walkie-talkies, badges, scarves and Tshirts was moved throughout the convention centre and adjoining hotels. Some were assigned to follow Lalonde, whom they codenamed “The Eagle,” and keep a close eye on his activities. Others ensured that large numbers of vocal, visible Turner supporters attended every convention function so that demonstrations by pro-review delegates would be drowned out by proTurner chants.

Strategy: The pro-review forces—headed by Corriveau, a vice-president of the party’s Quebec wing, and Gary McCauley, a former MP from Moncton, N.B.— held their own strategy sessions every four hours, beginning at 8 a.m., in the nearby Westin Hotel, four levels below Turner’s own top-floor suite. The contra crew also carried walkie-talkies, tracked the movements of friends and foes, passed out buttons and pressed undecided delegates to vote for a review of Turner’s leadership.

The contras won public support from two prominent Liberals on Friday. Charles Caccia, the Liberal MP for Toronto’s Davenport riding, became the first and only MP to oppose Turner. And Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary and once one of the party’s most powerful backroom organizers, joined the call for a leadership review. But many pro-review sympathizers complained that their movement was disorganized. Some delegates even had difficulty tracking down the pro-review

headquarters. Said Patrick O’Meara of MacGregor, Man.: “There are a lot of people out there who want to join us, but they don’t know how to. There’s no focus, no organization.”

Heated: On the convention floor, exchanges between the two camps were often heated. And rank-and-file Turner delegates did not shy away from confrontations. At one point three stout, elderly women delegates sporting Turner scarves and headgear cornered Coutts and denounced him for speaking out against Turner. “You are wrong,” lectured Grace Nicholls, a delegate from the British Columbia riding of Okanagan-Similkameen, about the opposition

to Turner. “You’re stabbing him in the back.”

In turn, Coutts rejected the “backroom boy” label that had been stuck on him. “Oh, gee whiz, I can’t imagine who would say that. I would think the backroom/front-room stuff is a bit asinine,” he replied. Davey clearly agreed. “It’s as if Turner didn’t have his own back room,” Davey said. “He has got a back room and it’s very obvious, very evident and very effective at this convention.” Indeed, one clever sign of Turner’s backroom efforts were buttons worn by his supporters that read, “I am a front-room Liberal.”

But all the convention squabbling was not between proand anti-Turner forces. Some of Turner’s own key allies and advisers were locked in fierce battles with each other. Tempers flared when Frith, the convention’s co-chair-

man, learned that a $2-million contribution to the Liberal treasury would not be presented to Turner, as originally announced. The plan had been to show that fund-raisers were whittling down the party’s debt, estimated at $4 to $5 million. Many blamed Senator Leo Kolber, the party’s fund-raising chairman, for the mix-up. Kolber, according to party officials, will soon be replaced by Gerald Schwartz, a prominent Winnipeg businessman.

One pro-Turner faction also wanted a strong showing because its members felt that the leadership challenge had reduced his ability to attract top advisers. In the convention back rooms last week, some longtime Turner associates complained about the effectiveness of Turner’s top aide, Douglas Richardson. They privately called Richardson “a boy scout” and urged that he be replaced. They also were calling for the departure of Michèle Tremblay, Turner’s senior Quebec adviser and communications director. Tremblay has been a controversial presence on staff because of her advice on issues affecting Quebec and media strategy.

Unity: Despite the specific disagreements, however, Liberals on both sides displayed a genuine desire for unity. Davey, for one, insisted that regardless of the outcome, the party ^ would remain united. Q “The party will rally behind the leader,” he said. “If it’s John Turner, they will rally behind him. If there’s a convention, they’ll rally behind that leader. The Liberal party doesn’t split.” For his part, Turner promised that there would be “no purges” of dissidents. Indeed, he attempted to use his Saturday speech to begin healing the wounds opened by the divisive review process and reaching out to disaffected left-wing Liberals. “Canada wants this party to get its act together,” Turner said to rousing cheers. The party’s performance in the coming months—and in the next election—will depend to a great extent on how well the Liberals can now put their differences behind them.