Smiling bravely, John Turner emerged from a 90-minute meeting last week flanked by two of his most loyal supporters, senators Alasdair Graham and Pietro Rizutto. Inside, the senators and Liberal House Leader Herb Gray had presented Turner with a list of proposals drawn up at a top-level Liberal strategy session on Aug. 30 in Ottawa. Their objective: to strengthen Turner’s sagging leadership and reverse the party’s failing political fortunes. Under the harsh glare of the television lights, Turner again pledged to improve his personal performance. Acknowledging that he faced the most serious challenge to his leadership so far, Turner said: “No, [it
is] not business as usual. There is a heightened sense of urgency.”
That urgency was underlined at week’s end by an opinion poll putting Turner in third place in public approval among national political leaders. The poll, conducted by Angus Reid Associates Inc. from Aug. 24 to Aug. 28, said that just 29 per cent of those surveyed approved of the way that Turner has handled his job. That compared with 31 per cent for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and a remarkable 68 per cent for NDP Leader Ed Broadbent. The same poll put the Liberals’ national support at 32 per cent, while the Tories had 27-per-cent support and the NDP 39 per cent. Said Liberal MP Jean
Lapierre: “The NDP peaked last month. We are back in business.”
The turmoil within the Liberal party created a flurry of activity last week within Turner’s office and the party’s parliamentary caucus. Turner and his MPs reached a compromise on amendments that the party will propose to the Meech Lake constitutional accord; the Liberals will seek to ensure that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is given priority over all parts of the agreement. The deal was struck after Lapierre and Turner’s Quebec lieutenant, MP Raymond Garneau, two of the strongest supporters of the accord, responded to fears voiced by anglophone Liberals that parts of the agreement—
‘Hoisted on my own petard’
Despite continuing attacks on his leadership, John Turner was in apparent good spirits last week when Maclean’s Ottawa Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie interviewed him in his oak-panelled office on Parliament Hill:
Maclean’s: What is your reaction to the events of the past week?
Turner: I am of good heart. We have lost some public support. After the dissension in the party over Meech Lake, some recent public attacks on the leader by a few members of the party, including our president, it is inevitable that we lose support in the short term. My position is clear. I was elected leader by a full democratic convention. I was confirmed leader last November by a full democratic convention. I have the solid support of the national executive—though they are offering some strong advice as to what should be done—so I am here because of the legitimate, democratic process. Therefore, no movement of the polls, no public declarations by Liberals who have been trying to undermine my leadership, no public declarations by Liberals who have never accepted the democratic decisions of the party are going to change my mind. I will lead the Liberal party in the next general election.
Maclean’s: People have said that you must act—and quickly. What do you think you have to do?
Turner: On Meech Lake, we are committed to the accord despite its flaws because it brings Quebec into the Canadian family. I have said from the beginning that it has flaws, and we will suggest improvements by way of con-
structive amendment. They will deal with issues like women’s rights, aboriginal rights, the Senate and the North. We have maintained a strong attack on the free trade sellout, and we will offer an alternative to that within the next num-
ber of weeks. Obviously, filling the key vacancies in my office and the party— particularly the roles of principal secretary and the national campaign chairman—is the priority. The criticism of me, the party apparatus, my office—it’s from opening up the party. Now I’m being hoisted on my own petard because
I have opened up the party.
Maclean’s: Have you been doing something wrong?
Turner: When things go well, everybody takes the credit. When things go badly, the leader gets the blame—that’s the political process. But I am trying to improve in every way. I am abreast of the issues and, like Ben Johnson, I’ll be ready for the big race. His timing was perfect. I was talking to my younger son, Andrew—we watched that race together on Sunday—and he said, ‘Dad, where would you have been in that race?’ I said that my best time was 9.6 seconds, which in metres is 10.5, so I would have been about eight metres behind Ben Johnson, and I was Canadian champion. Maclean’s: Is there a conspiracy to get you?
Turner: It is no accident that the leadership convention of June, 1984, and the review convention of 1986 have not been accepted by certain people. There has been an orchestrated attempt to weaken the leadership. It is not only weakening the leadership, it is weakening the party. They have used Meech Lake—which legitimately divides the party—as a shield behind which to attack the leadership. We are the only political party « that is debating these issues openly. Where is the public debate in the ndp? z Where is the public debate in the ConQ servative party? Zilch—nonexistent. Openness has its price, but it is worth it. Maclean’s: How can you maintain credibility on amending Meech Lake if you intend to vote for the accord?
Turner: We’re serious about changing it. We are participating actively across the country in the public debate. This exercise [of discussing] amendments achieved a compromise between Quebec members of the caucus and the other
especially the description of Quebec as a distinct society—might take precedence over the Charter.
Turner also turned his attention to the next federal election, expected in late 1988 or early 1989. Late last week he summoned his party’s six-member platform committee, which draws up policy positions for an election. Later, in an interview with Maclean's, Turner declared, “We will be ready when the government is ready.” And his aides vowed that Turner will move to counter his critics by asserting leadership in increasingly visible ways—including a series of speeches beginning this week with a major address on human rights to an Ottawa meeting of Liberals from around the world. It was a clear sign that John Turner does not intend to give up without a struggle.
HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa
believe in the radical centre represented by the Liberal party. Brian Mulroney played a let’s-pretend Liberal very successfully in 1984. Ed Broadbent is successfully playing a let’s-pretend Liberal in 1987. But the country wants the real goods, and that is my job.
Maclean’s: How did you feel after last week ’s meeting with party oficiáis? Turner: I felt good. I was in good humor. The only question that really annoyed me was on my working habits. I have travelled 600,000 km across this country. My lunch hour consists of 12:25 to 1:30—1 have to be back for Question Period. Every lunch is a business lunch with a member of a caucus or somebody who wants to see me. As for the tennis, I try to get in two games a week, three if I can. I believe it is my duty to stay healthy, to reduce the stress. It has always been part of my routine.
members, which everybody can support. Now, I’m not saying that that is going to get unanimous support when the final vote is taken. But it meets a genuine concern in some parts of the party and yet preserves support for bringing Quebec into the Canadian family. I have absolutely no doubt that I am correct on this issue.
Maclean’s: Have you laid down the law to the Senate regarding amendments to the drug patent bill, C-22?
Turner: There’s nothing like an appointment to the age of 75 to give one a sense of independence. The senators have served the country well in airing the issue of Bill C-22, which will mean higher drug prices for Canada at best. The Senate is not irrelevant. If the government had wanted to do something about the Senate, they had the premiers at
Meech Lake. The Senate is fulfilling its useful constitutional role. I believe in an elected Senate and not an appointed Senate. I also believe that at the end of the day the House of Commons prevails. Mulroney is as phoney as a three-dollar bill when he gets up in the House and says, ‘Let’s abolish the Senate.’ He can’t do it under our current Constitution, and under Meech Lake he needs the premiers to do it.
Maclean’s: Your party president, Michel Robert, has warned that the Liberal party could become irrelevant Is the party headed down a dead-end road?
Turner: Any more declarations like Robert’s and that is where we may end. If there are going to be attacks on the leader, we can make ourselves irrelevant. But I believe that Canadians do not want a polarized country, that they
Maclean’s: How do you feel?
Turner: I feel good. I would hope the party understands that as we approach an election we need cohesiveness, particularly within the caucus. As for the sniping, there are people who have their own agenda that I have no control over. The Sunday meeting had two purposes—venting frustration and constructive criticism and suggestions. From what I hear, it was a great success and probably unique in the political history of the country. The leader was held up almost as if he were being X-rayed on a screen nationally—with my innards and vitals and my whole structure being looked at. But I will take that. It demonstrated that the great majority of the intellectual, moral and structural leaders of the party is solidly behind me.
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