John Turner’s public struggle

PAUL GESSELL September 7 1987

John Turner’s public struggle

PAUL GESSELL September 7 1987

John Turner’s public struggle

Liberal MP Donald John ston says that he no longer feels quite so

lonely. In May, Johnston defied his party and his leader,

John Turner, by opposing the Meech Lake constitutional accord. But last week Johnston suddenly found a new and unlikely ally: Liberal party president Michel Robert. The occasion was a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Canadian Bar Association in the Ottawa Congress Centre. Moments after hearing Johnston deliver an attack on the accord, Robert demanded that changes be made to the pact.

Even more surprising was Robert’s warning that there could be “an open revolt” in the Liberals’ parliamentary caucus unless Turner sets out clearer policies and replaces key aides.

Robert’s stinging rebuke sent shock waves through the party and widened divisions between Turner’s supporters and his growing number of critics. Some Liberals jumped

to their leader’s defence and planned countermeasures to strengthen his position. But Turner’s opponents were emboldened by Robert’s comments— and a few MPs even started expressing their concerns more publicly about Turner’s leadership. Montreal MP Jean-

Claude Malépart said that the Liberal caucus believes time is running out for Turner to change his image and reverse damage to the party.

Said Malépart: “It’s a question of weeks, not months.” Quebec MP Alain Tardif was even harsher, saying that Turner should resign now because it was “too late” for a turnaround.

And Denis Corderre, president of the Young Liberals of Quebec and a former Turner loyalist, said that his executive has decided to call for Turner’s resignation.

Several caucus members denied that they are on the brink of open revolt. However, some admitted that they have been telling Turner privately for months what

Robert said publicly. Charles Caccia of Toronto was the only MP who called for a leadership review during last November’s Liberal convention, at which a resounding 76.3 per cent of delegates gave Turner a vote of confidence. Last week Caccia refused to say where he now

stands on the leadership. But he did endorse Robert’s remarks, and said pointedly, “What he says is a message that we have to pay attention to.”

Robert, in an interview with Maclean’s, predicted that Liberal MPs and senators would raise the leadership question increasingly from now on. He added, “It is impossible to predict who, when and how many, but I am quite sure—and I say that with regrets—that this kind of situation will develop in the coming months if we don’t take some measures now.” Robert said that he wants Turner to start offering Canada “a vision” through clear policy announcements.

Specifically, Robert said that Turner should call more vigorously for changes to the Meech Lake accord in such areas as Senate reform and multiculturalism. Ironically, Robert had been one of the architects of Turner’s policy on Meech Lake, which is that the accord is flawed but

should be supported. But some MPs, including Johnston, rebelled against that stand, and at least one caucus member has warned that the party will be split, perhaps irreparably, when the accord comes to a vote in Parliament.

Turner replied to Robert’s criticisms

by saying that he should have made his remarks privately, not through the news media. Said Turner: “I would think a more traditional way of handling the matter, followed by all previous presidents of the party, would be to do it person to person.” At least one former president, Senator Alasdair Graham, agreed. Graham, now co-chairman of the Liberals’ campaign committee, said that he kept his comments private when he was president from 1975 to 1980 and had advice or criticism for then-party leader Pierre Trudeau. But Robert insisted that he had already delivered his criticism to Turner privately—but saw no results.

Turner’s friends and his foes all voiced surprise that Robert went public with his criticism. Only last July, Robert had warned MPs that they should toe the party line—or leave. But Robert, 49, said that it was his duty now to speak out. “If everybody remains silent,” he told Maclean’s, “there is a possibility that the situation would have continued to deteriorate and then we would have passed the point of no return.” Robert said

that the very future of the Liberal party is at stake; if its leadership problems are not solved, he warned, the party runs the danger of becoming “marginalized,” leaving the Conservatives and New Democrats as the country’s two major parties.

In his remarks, Robert stressed his loyalty to the party above its leader. Indeed, he has been an active backroom Liberal since his days as a law student in the late 1950s at the University of Montreal.

He gained a reputation as a brilliant constitutional lawyer with the Montreal firm of Robert, Dansereau, Barré, Marchesseault and Lauzon.

Later, he served as personal lawyer to Trudeau and represented the federal government in several high-profile proceedings, including a 1977 royal commission into RCMP wrongdoing and a 1981 Supreme Court test of Trudeau’s decision to patriate the Constitution.

The motives behind Robert’s public criticism of Turner were unclear. Sources close to Turner said that Robert was able to win the leader’s blessing to run for the national presidency last year by pledging not to use the post to

seek the leadership himself—or even to run for a seat in the House of Commons. But three months later Robert sought—and won—his leader’s permission to run in the next election.

Robert himself continued to maintain that he has no leadership ambitions and has not yet decided whether to run for Parliament. But some Montreal Liberals claimed that Robert sees himself as the natural French-speaking successor to Turner. His critics branded Robert as an arrogant Trudeau loyalist more in tune with the party’s old establishment than with the Turner era.

Some observers drew comparisons between Robert and Dalton Camp, another former party president. Camp was president of the Conservative par-

ty in 1966 when he led an ultimately successful campaign to force out its then-leader, John Diefenbaker. However, neither Turner’s supporters nor Robert’s were encouraging that parallel last week: while Camp helped end Diefenbaker’s political career, Camp himself was badly damaged by resentment among Tories over his role.

After Robert’s remarks, Turner’s loyalists immediately began plotting action to counter their effect. They ac-

celerated plans to revive The Friends of John Turner, a group of followers that was largely responsible for delivering last November’s vote of confidence on Turner’s leadership. Loyalists were also lining up high-profile and grassroots Liberals to provide what one called a “spontaneous response” that they hoped would be seen as an endorsement of his leadership. Said Graham: “Turner is not about to walk away from this kind of a challenge.” But Turner was encountering problems in trying to revive that November troupe. Terry Popowich, vice-president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, was one of the leaders of that group. Relations between the two later cooled because of differences over the Meech Lake accord. Turner telephoned Pop-

owich in August to ask him to come back on board, fuelling rumors of a reconciliation. But Popowich turned the invitation down.

Turner was also having trouble finding a replacement for Douglas Richardson, his former principal secretary who resigned on Aug. 12 citing policy differences with the leader. One rising star within the Liberal party who had been touted as a replacement has already rejected the position. Requesting

anonymity, the person said, “I don’t need the kiss of death.” As Turner’s problems mount, potential leadership candidates sit quietly on the sidelines waiting for him to quit. One Liberal senator who wants Turner to resign said that there are no signs yet of “improprieties” or attempts by potential successors to organize leadership campaigns. A Turner adviser said that none of the current caucus members who aspire to the leadership are willing to lead a revolt, because they do not want to be seen as stabbing Turner in the back. He added, “They would not want to be painted as Brutus.” Aside from Robert, possible contenders include Montreal businessman Paul Martin Jr., MPs Lloyd Axworthy and Sheila Copps, and former cabinet ministers Jean Chrétien and Donald Macdonald.

Many Liberals, according to one caucus member, have already concluded that Turner will leave before the next election. “People have made up their minds,” she said. “People are planning the next campaign as if he were not there and not the leader.” But under the party’s constitution, there is no

mechanism to force Turner to quit until after the next general election. Said one Chrétien supporter: “John Turner’s closest friends have to go to him and tell him it is time to go.”

Some Liberals predicted that a few of Turner’s staunchest loyalists will do just that. But Johnston said that only Turner can decide his future— and the leader himself last week insisted that he would lead his party into the next election. “Lots of people can tell him he is in trouble,” said Johnston, “but ultimately the decision rests with him.”