‘We learn and improve’

January 11 1988

‘We learn and improve’

January 11 1988

‘We learn and improve’



For Liberal Leader John Turner, 1987 was a difficult year. His party was deeply divided over the Meech Lake constitutional accord, and Turner faced attacks on his leadership from other Liberals. Turner discussed his problems—and how he has dealt with them—as well as his plans for 1988 in a year-end interview with Maclean’s. He spoke with National Editor Andrew Phillips, Ottawa Bureau Chief Paul Gessell and Ottawa Correspondent Michael Rose in his office on Parliament Hill. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: You have had a lot of ups and downs over the past year. Are you a different leader than you were a year ago?

Turner: We learn and try to improve. Meech Lake was the most difficult event of the year in the sense that it divided the Liberal party in a very legitimate way. There were differences of views over the way the constitutional accord affected the future of Canada. I took the view immediately that despite its flaws, it achieved the overwhelming purpose of bringing Quebec fully into the Canadian family. I would in no way reopen Meech Lake; Meech Lake is closed. But the appearance of division within the caucus and the party cost me public esteem during the year, and that was the most difficult issue.

Maclean’s: Has it caused you to do your job in a different way or change your approach to the leadership?

Turner: No, you face issues head on. The role of a leader of the opposition is persuasion. There are no other weapons he has. We have made definitive statements on human rights, including South Africa, on defence, on Meech Lake, on trade, on ethics in government. We should have a first draft of our platform by mid-January. Our election readiness is proceeding well. The momentum is back.

Maclean’s: But how ready are you? Your party has a well-publicized debt, and you have had problems finding candidates. Are you ready to fight an election now? Turner: We would be ready by mid-January. We have drawn that debt down by $1 million during the year despite an expanded program; we will have the money. In terms of candidates, we don’t start off with 208 or 210 members of Parliament. But we will have good candidates. Many men and women don’t want to declare until an election be-

comes imminent. They don’t want to interrupt their careers any earlier than they have to.

Maclean’s: There has been a lot of talk, also, that you have had trouble raising money and, in particular, that your stand against the free trade deal has made it difficult to raise funds in the business community, which largely supports the agreement.

Turner: My latest advice is that we are right on budget in terms of revenues. Maclean’s: You may be on budget, but have you observed any misgivings among business leaders because of your stand on free trade—whether or not you make up the money from other sources?

Turner: My position with business leaders is that it is not a free trade agreement. It is a trade agreement, a selective trade agreement, that should be analysed as any other agreement: what did we get, what did we give away? We did not get guaranteed access to the American market as the business community wanted. It is quite clear that American trade law—past, present and future— continues to apply to Canadians. And against that, we gave away far more than tariffs. We gave away control over our energy, control over our investment policy and control over our capital markets. Many business people say that any deal is better than no deal. My reply is

that if you read it you will come to the conclusion I came to: that no deal would have been better than this deal. Maclean’s: You also face the problem of having two Liberal premiers, Robert Bourassa of Quebec and Frank McKenna of New Brunswick, disagreeing with you on free trade. What problems does that pose for you?

Turner: Each premier analyses the deal

in terms of the perspectives of his own province. My role is a national one. I am a federal member of Parliament and a national leader, and I just say to the premiers, “Read the deal as a Canadian from a national perspective.” I think it’s a bad deal for Canada.

Maclean’s: Won’t Canadians be confused when they try to figure out what the Liberal party stands for, with two Liberal premiers for the trade deal and the national leader against it?

Turner: I don’t think so. We each have our perspectives. In the next election, I will campaign right across the country on the basis that this is a bad deal. Maclean’s: As we approach an election

campaign in which free trade could very well be the main issue, will there not be a problem for the Liberal party in showing voters that it is not the same as the NDP? Turner: I think the differences will be clear between the Liberals and the NDP. First of all, on the trade matter we are not protectionist as the NDP is. We are still a party that believes in liberalizing trade and lowering trade barriers—but on an international, multilateral basis. We believe, as Liberals, that we have always done better with the United States under the international umbrella of the GATT negotiations. Those are the negotiations that brought us to our present state, where 80 per cent of everything we sell into the American market goes free of tariff. We have never done well head-to-head, bilaterally with the U.S. We are also open in our defence relationships. We are committed to NORAD and we are committed to NATO. The NDP is still against both those alliances and is an isolationist, inwardlooking party. The Liberal party is not beholden to any economic sector. The NDP is formally allied with organized labor. The NDP is bound by its policy resolutions, several of which are highly interventionist in terms of nationalizing banks and railways and so on. I think those alternatives will become clear in a general election.

Maclean’s: Many people have suggested that there has been something of a leftward drift in Liberal policy over the past year, in such areas as day care and your opposition to furthur testing of American cruise missiles in Canada. Is that a fair statement?

Turner: There has been no drift. We decide what we are doing and take positions, so there is no drift. The positions are positions that meet the classic Liberal philosophy, namely the supremacy of the individual over the state, the fact that we should reward success and initiative and entrepreneurship, but at the same time protect those less able to protect themselves: the unemployed, the handicapped, the aged, the sick. The positions that we have taken during the year reflect that philosophy. On the cruise missile issue, the speech I gave in the House of Commons in March recalled the position Mr. Trudeau had taken: that the purpose of our allowing the testing of unarmed missiles in Canada was to further the two-track system on deployment in Europe of the cruise. He had said, and I said in March, that once there was progress made on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, then the need for cruise testing in Canada would cease. Mr. Gorbachev and President Reagan made it clear that that treaty was imminent, and I said we would not renew the cruise missile testing. So there was no change.

Maclean’s: You have said that you do not

rule out a possible coalition with the NDP after the next election. Has that statement caused you problems?

Turner: What I said was we are working toward a majority and are confident we can obtain a majority. If there were a minority, we would not discount any possibility. But I can assure you that a coalition would be a very remote possibility.

Maclean’s: On Meech Lake, you have said that the issue is closed as far as you are concerned. But it is still an issue in the public arena, and some Liberals are still working against the accord. How can you say that the issue is closed?

Turner: A vote was taken in the House of Commons, and that closed the issue as far as our caucus was concerned. We are an open party, and we will continue to discuss issues. That is inevitable and doesn’t bother me. I think you find on that issue rumblings even within the Conservative party and within the NDP in Manitoba. I don’t find it unusual. I think other issues have supplanted it: trade, taxes....

Maclean’s: Mussels?

Turner: Mussels! Don’t underestimate that. I took the train down to Montreal a week ago to speak to a business group and, in the reception before the lunch where I spoke about trade, the topic wasn’t trade, it wasn’t Meech Lake, it was mussels, les moules. On the train back it was mussels. That is because the lack of competence in the government in handling that issue was apparent to everyone. The department of health and the department of fisheries goofed—badly. There was a fourto five-day period between the alarm bells going off and the minister of health informing the Canadian people that there was a problem. So you had sheer incompetence involving the health of Canadians.

Maclean’s: In both Canada and the United States, the private lives of many public people came under intense scrutiny in 1987. In the United States, it seems that no subject is off-limits. Where do you think the line should be drawn?

Turner: I think a man or woman’s private character is only relevant insofar as it relates to his or her performance of public duties. That is a question of judgment in every individual case. It is a question for you in the media, it is a question for the person in public life as to how to respond.

Maclean’s: What about Senator Gary Hart, who withdrew from the presidential race for seven months because of reports that he was having an affair?

Turner: I think that there was a course of conduct, and it eventually called into question his judgment. And then there was the direct challenge to the media, which made it rather unique.

Maclean’s: What about Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew his name from

consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court? He admitted that he had smoked marijuana at a time when just about everybody in his generation was doing it. Turner: That might have been relevant to Judge Ginsburg because he was on the drug squad in the department of justice at one time. And because the President and Mrs. Reagan were on an antidrug crusade, which gave it a special perspective. But I don’t believe that a young person experimenting some years ago in a generational fad should be penalized for life, just as I don’t believe that somebody, years ago in their youth, caught by the law in some relatively straightforward offence and who paid the penalty for it, ought to be penalized later in life. Maclean’s: What would you do if a person in his late 30s or early Ws whom you had asked to run for the Liberal party told you that, when he was in college, he used marijuana fairly regularly? Turner: I would make a judgment in each case. But I am not going to sit as father confessor against every potential candidate. I would ask a candidate to tell me if, in their judgment, there was anything they thought I ought to know. Maclean’s: Despite your party ’s relatively high standing in the polls, you have not fared so well personally. One recent Gallup survey says that 55 per cent of Canadians believe that you are not an asset to the Liberal party, which gives you the lowest rating of the three federal leaders. Why is that feeling out there?

Turner: I think Meech Lake was costly to me in terms of public opinion—the divisions that that provoked in the party. It takes some time to recover from that. The only number that really counts is who you are going to vote for in the next election. I deal with the issues as I see them, deliver the best performance I can. I’m fairly serene about it. Maclean’s: In a conversation with us recently, the Prime Minister said that he planned to bring in a tough ethics-ingovemment package. He felt also that that would mean that quite a few good people will not run for office. Do you find in talking to potential candidates a greater reluctance on the part of some people to get into the political arena now that it has become, in many ways, so vicious? Turner: I would say that people interested in public life must be prepared to have their financial affairs scrutinized under a public-ethic package. And to endure the scrutiny that may go beyond that. But I am still hopeful that we can continue to attract the best and brightest of the next generation.

Maclean’s: With all the criticism, do you enjoy your job?

Turner: It’s worth it in terms of trying to move Canada toward its potential as a nation—and because there is no greater vocation in life than serving one’s country. Do I enjoy it? Thoroughly. □