A Liberal rebel breaks ranks

MICHAEL February 1 1988

A Liberal rebel breaks ranks

MICHAEL February 1 1988

A Liberal rebel breaks ranks

When Liberal MPs rose last week to give John Turner a standing ovation on his first day back to Parliament after the Christmas break, it was a rare display of unanimous support for their leader. The applause came just hours after Turner had received a two-page letter from prominent Montreal MP and former Liberal leadership contender Donald Johnston, stating that Johnston had decided to sit in the House of Commons as an Independent Liberal.

Johnston, who was not present during the standing ovation for Turner, quit the party caucus after months of feuding with the leader over party policies—notably Turner’s opposition to the Mulroney government’s free trade deal with the United States and his support of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. But even Johnston acknowledged that his departure—prompted in part by Turner’s order that he move to the Liberal back benches in the Commons —could prove beneficial for Turner in the long run by removing his most vocal critic from the 39-member Liberal caucus. Said Johnston: “There’s nothing

more difficult for a leader than a divided caucus.”

Indeed, Turner’s insistence that Johnston toe the party line on free trade and Meech Lake showed an apparent new resolve on the part of the beleaguered Liberal leader to restore order to his restive caucus. But some observers argued that Johnston’s departure was another sign of deep divisions in the party over policy and Turner’s performance. Clearly, with a possible election looming this year, Turner’s aides are seeking to end the image problems that polls show place him behind Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent in personal popularity among voters—although his Liberals lead the other parties. In addition to recent decisive moves on caucus matters, party organization and election preparation, Turner planned to continue to work on improving his

sometimes staccato public speaking.

Johnston’s departure came with little warning. On Jan. 6 he sent Turner a strongly worded letter restating his criticisms of Turner’s positions on free trade and Meech Lake. In the letter, a copy of which was read by Maclean’s, Johnston said that he was uncomfortable with Turner’s categorical opposition to the free trade deal—and accused the leader of not emphasizing the importance of some kind of bilater-

al trading agreement with the United States. The Liberals risk losing the next election, Johnston’s letter warned, because of public confusion over Turner’s position☺.

Eight days later, on Jan. 14, Turner telephoned Johnston at his home in Montreal to tell him that he was to move to the back benches and to offer him a less important role in the Liberal shadow cabinet. Johnston had resigned as the Liberals’ external affairs critic last fall in order to speak out against Meech Lake. In addition, Turner told Johnston that he could no longer accept a member of his caucus using his position as an MP to publicly criticize Liberal policies. The next

day Johnstop wrote his letter of resignation, which Turner received when the House reconvened last Monday. Johnston, who served in Liberal cabinets from 1980 to 1984, told Maclean’s that Turner’s decision to move him to the back benches “came out of left field.” Said Johnston: “It made me realize that caucus is not now an avenue where I am likely to prevail.” For his part, Turner told reporters after Johnston’s departure that the rebel

MP “left me no alternative.” Other Liberals were openly hostile to Johnston. Said Toronto MP John Nunziata: “He was never a team player. He never pulled his weight in the three years I’ve been around here.”

Senior Liberals said that they hoped Turner’s decision to take a hard line with Johnston would be seen as an effort by the Liberal leader to cement his hold on the leadership in a critical pre-election period. Party insiders said that Turner’s senior aides are basing their strategy on opinion polls, which indicate that Turner, a former finance minister in the Trudeau years, is trusted, though not necessarily liked, by most Canadi-

ans. As a result, they plan to emphasize what they see as his statesmanlike image by sending Turner on a tour of Europe in April to discuss trading matters with prominent European opinion leaders. “He looks good on an international stage,” said one party insider. “We want Canadians back home to see some of that before the next election.”

To improve his image at home, Turner is continuing intensive sessions with speaking coach Henry Comor, a veteran broadcaster who is also a medical doctor. Those sessions include breathing exercises to improve his often-choppy public speaking style. “We’ve found that he breathes from his throat,” said one strategist with frequent access to Turner. “Henry is trying to get him to breathe from the diaphragm.” Turner has also taken steps to resolve organizational difficulties in the party. A draft copy of the Liberal election platform was delivered to Turner at his official residence, Stornoway, last Monday night, and he has recently made two significant additions to his campaign team: John Webster, a 30-year-old strategist from the Ontario wing of the party, will act as campaign director, and former Liberal cabinet minister Rémi Bujold will be chief organizer in Quebec. Bujold’s job is made easier by recent polls in Quebec, which show that the Liberals are regaining lost ground. At the same time, Liberals maintain that they have reduced their party’s debt over the past year by $1 million to $4 million. A confident Turner told reporters following a caucus strategy session last Wednesday, “We’re on schedule and ready for a spring election.”

Still, image problems continued to plague Turner. During CTV’s Question Period program broadcast on Jan. 17 journalist Pamela Wallin asked him about a rumored drinking problem. Turner replied that he had “never allowed any pleasure or distraction to interfere with doing the job. I keep my eye on the ball.” As well, there are persistent rumors that an innerear problem might keep Turner from flying frequently during the next election campaign. But Turner, who was temporarily grounded by his doctor late last year, dismissed those suggestions again last week, saying “I’m 100 per cent.” With a critical election approaching after almost four rocky years with Turner as leader, Liberals were hoping that most Canadians will agree with that assessment.