The war among the Liberals

MICHAEL ROSE June 22 1987

The war among the Liberals

MICHAEL ROSE June 22 1987

The war among the Liberals

Relays of forest-green buses left Parliament Hill last week, ferrying MPs and senators to the Speaker’s garden party at Kingsmere in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. The annual party is usually a reliable sign that the capital’s summer break is not far off. But there were growing indications last week that instead of a respite, politicians in Ottawa and around the country faced a long, hot summer of debate on the constitutional agreement signed by Canada’s 11 first ministers on June 3. And it was clear that the politician facing the most difficulty over the issue was not Prime Minister Brian Mulroney but Liberal Leader John Turner.

House leaders of the three federal parties set the scene for the debate by agreeing to stage an elaborate series of televised public hearings on the accord throughout July and August in Ottawa.

Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick planned a similar public airing of views.

And Liberal senators in Ottawa—many of whom oppose Turner’s endorsement of the accord — fuelled the fire by insisting that the Senate hold its own public hearings.

That, along with dissent among Liberal MPs about the constitutional agreement and Turner’s position, intensified rumors that Turner’s leadership was once again in question.

The turmoil in Liberal ranks was a result of Turner’s position on the revised Constitution. To silence unruly members of his caucus, he told the Commons on June 8 that his party supported the agreement as it stood. He added, however, that he and his colleagues would seek to have important amendments incorporated into the document before it is formally passed into law. Said the Liberal leader: “I believe I’m on the right side of history and that my party is on the right side of history.”

Still, Turner seemed unable to eliminate signs of dissent within his 40-member parliamentary caucus. After a 41/2-hour caucus meeting on Wednesday, he acknowledged that a “maximum” of 10 of his MPs had misgivings about the agreement. But he insisted that the number would be “very much reduced” before the Commons votes on the accord. Turner tried to bring order to the group’s

chaotic discussions by establishing a committee to review all constitutional amendments proposed by his MPs and senators—before they were made public.

However, even Sudbury MP Douglas Frith, a firm Turner loyalist in the past, reserved the right to see what amendments were made before committing himself to supporting the accord. Said Frith: “It would be very foolish for any of us who feel that strongly about the Meech Lake accord to say ahead of time [how we will vote].” At midweek Turner’s difficulties were underlined by a Gallup poll which showed that support for

his party had fallen by three per cent nationally to 39 per cent, just four points ahead of the second-place NDP but still well ahead of the Tories, who stood at 24 per cent.

One influential Liberal senator who had argued last fall for a review of Turner’s leadership said that the decline in public support explained the growing restiveness of some Liberal MPs. Said the senator, who asked

that his name not be used: “All of those people were sure they would end up in a John Turner cabinet. Now they’re not sure there ever will be a John Turner cabinet.”

There were also signs that senior Liberal workers—many of whom had been influenced by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s, vision of a strong central government—could not accept Turner’s position on the Constitution. Among the most concerned: the co-chairman of the party’s national membership drive, Terry Popowich, who resigned his post last week over the issue. Said Popowich: “We have a fair amount of dis-

sent because this issue is the heart and soul of the Liberal party.” But he denied that there was any organized attempt to unseat Turner, or that the dissent would harm the party’s longterm prospects.

Still, party president Michel Robert was concerned enough about the caucus dispute to write to each member, outlining the dangers of further discord. Acknowledged Robert: “There are some members who believe that the leadership of Mr. Turner is in question, and use the Meech Lake accord as a pretext to raise this question again. But to me this is only a very small minority in the party.”

Indeed, Liberal sources said that a group of concerned party workers and strategists plan to try to convince Turner that he will have to change his style, improve his performance, hire better aides—or resign. So far, however, the group has not formally approached anyone in Turner’s inner circle. But even those opposed to Turner’s leadership say that it is almost inconceivable that he would step down after three years of hard work—and with his leadership confirmed at a convention last November by an impressive 76.3 per cent of the delegates.

Meanwhile, Turner’s problems were accentuated by the decision of the Liberal-dominated Senate, in a 34-to17 vote, to hold its own public hearings on the constitutional accord. The three House leaders in the Commons agreed on Thursday that there should be a joint Commons-Senate committee to do that, and they planned to invite senators to join MPs for a summer of deliberations. But the Liberal senators, led by former Trudeau cabinet minister Allan MacEachen, decided to carry on with their own plans for separate hearings.

There was no indication at week’s end that the senators would back down. But many Ottawa observers, including some aides to Turner, said that the senators plan to invite Trudeau to appear before their committee and reiterate his opposition to the Meech Lake accord. Declared the Conservative House leader in the Senate, Lowell Murray: “I think Mr. MacEachen wants his own televised spectacular.”

At the end of the week, it was clear that Turner’s troubles over the constitutional issue were far from over. Turner himself appeared to concede that he faced a difficult summer unless he managed to restore order in his party. Said the Liberal leader: “I think silence and a little self-restraint is the best healer.”

— MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa with BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal