MARY JANIGAN March 28 1988


MARY JANIGAN March 28 1988



It was a brave, perhaps even foolhardy, move in the cruel game of politics. On a three-day swing through British Columbia last week, Liberal Leader John Turner defiantly swept aside speculation that he would seek a safer seat in Toronto in the upcoming federal election. Instead, Turner proclaimed that he was going to run again in Vancouver-Quadra, the middle-class riding that sent him to Parliament as the lone B.C. Liberal in September, 1984. The gesture elicited public praise and private distress from many B.C. Liberals. Said one western fund raiser last week: “I have got to admire him, but I have also got to say that I am so demoralized. I would be very surprised if we win any seats, including his, in this province.”

Rivalries: That anguished acknowledgment captured the mood of Canada’s once-dominant Liberal party as it prepares for the next federal election, expected later this year. Despite 3V2 years of reconstruction efforts, the Liberals have debts of more than $5 million—and corrosive internal rivalries. Controversial policies such as Turner’s pledge to tear up the CanadaU.S. free trade agreement have divided supporters and angered traditional financial supporters. And lingering doubts persist about Turner’s leadership talents, his ability to attract star candidates, and his human relations skills. As former national organization director Douglas Franklin reluctantly acknowledged last week: “The troops are disgruntled. They see a wonderful opportunity to displace the Tories. But we have neither the collective will nor the financial resources to make that happen. And the party has failed to rally under the leader.”

Those problems are critical because many Liberals say that they believe they must fight the next election on a riding-by-riding basis. They calculate that the Liberals could win—or lose— as many as 40 of the country’s 295 ridings by a margin of two per cent. Many strategists claim that voters generally dislike both Mulroney and Turner— but add that they are reluctant to vote for the NDP. In that climate, the party could win individual ridings with strong local candidates, meticulous organization and grassroots fervor. But,

said one discouraged Ontario Liberal, “the real question is, ‘Can these guys bury the hatchets long enough to run a 50-day campaign?’ There are a lot of people doing nothing now. There is no enthusiasm.”

Polls: Those concerns are surfacing at a time when the Liberals hold first place in most polls. But for the party, there is a darker side to the results as

well. Two weeks ago a Gallup poll showed the Liberals with 37 per cent of voters’ support, the New Democrats with 33 per cent and the Progressive Conservatives with 28 per cent. But the poll also showed that the Liberals’ lead had plummeted four points within a month—from 41 per cent. Said Ontario Liberal MP Keith Penner: “The polls are not as good as they should be,

given the Tories’ poor showing.” Then, last week, Gallup reported that 30 per cent of Canadians say that NDP Leader Ed Broadbent would make the best prime minister, 21 per cent endorse Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and a paltry 13 per cent select Turner—his lowest personal level in almost four years.

The federal party’s difficulties are at least partially offset by provincial successes. Since the federal Liberals lost power in September, 1984, their provincial colleagues have won elections in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. The Manitoba Liberals, perennial underdogs, may become the official opposition in the April 26 provincial election. In Atlantic Canada, provincial Liberals say that they can defeat Conservative governments in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Declared Carol Young, the chairman of Nova Scotia’s federal election-readiness committee: “There are good feelings about the party provincially and that, in turn, will help us federally.”

Election: In fact, Turner loyalists say that the Liberal leader has resuscitated the party that he inherited after a divisive leadership battle in June, 1984. The Liberals have made substantial progress in election organization. Strategists are reassembling their election advertising agency, Red Leaf, with the help of an advisory committee headed by David Morton, a vice-president of Quaker Oats Co. of Canada Ltd.

Turner himself says that he believes he has scored his greatest success with the party’s election platform committee. After months of work, that committee has compiled a comprehensive list of policy positions for the election. It has also identified key voter concerns, such as fear that Canada’s education system is simply not working. Said committee co-chairman Patrick Johnston: “We just decided not to get caught up in the problems and did what we set out to do.”

But some supporters maintain that the most dramatic improvement is a new, more relaxed Turner. With the help of veteran Toronto broadcaster Henry Comor, the Liberal leader has worked hard to drop the distracting

gestures that have made him appear awkward during his public appearances. His aides say that he has learned to breathe with his diaphragm—and to deliver his message in a manner that will make his listeners more comfortable. Last week press secretary Raymond Heard proudly dis-

played a 12-minute videotape in which Turner discusses easily, and apparently spontaneously, his concerns about the free trade agreement. Said Heard: “It shows the real John Turner. This is not the blow-dried John Turner.” Debts: Despite those positive advances, the Liberals’ problems are formidable. The party owes $4.7 million to the Royal Bank of Canada and the National Bank. In addition, it owes $600,000 in outstanding bills such as telephone accounts and $395,000 in overdue remittances to local riding associations. Two weeks ago the party’s financial management committee rejected president Michel Robert’s call for staff layoffs and deep cuts in the

budgets of the party’s regional wings. Instead, the committee agreed to put 20 cents from every dollar raised into a campaign war chest, But Maclean’s has learned

that the debate over funding is continuing. According to the current formula, riding associations must send all cheques for more than $20 to Ottawa. National headquarters keeps 50 per cent, puts 25 per cent into an election fund for the riding and then gives the remainder back to the riding. Provincial wings keep nothing. Instead, Ottawa funds them with predetermined budgets. But many fund raisers say that donors do not want their contributions to be used to pay interest on the party’s national debt. As a result, a former B.C. candidate told Maclean’s last week, “Last fall we got just two donations from a list of 50 or 60 architectural and engineering firms.”

Donations: To deal with that problem, party president Robert, and Seymour Iseman, the president of the Ontario wing, recommended that the provincial wings and the riding associations should keep their own donations. Although the party’s financial management committee rejected that proposal two weeks ago, Robert told

Maclean’s last week, “My way would have produced a better incentive to raise the money.”

The party has also suffered from disagreements over key policy planks. Turner’s

decision last year to endorse the Meech Lake constitutional accord—which recognizes Quebec as a distinct society and grants increased powers to the provinces—eventually led Montreal MP Donald Johnston to resign from the caucus. Pockets of dissidents formed across the country. And the wounds have not healed: last week some senior Ontario delegates to the provincial wing’s annual meeting, being held in Windsor, Ont., from March 25 to 27, were attempting to block a resolution from Toronto Liberal candidate Dennis Mills that called for amendments to that accord.

Free trade: Turner’s repeated vows to tear up the free trade agreement have created even more discord, discouraging corporate donors—who generally support the free trade initiative—and splitting the grassroots membership. Milton Harris, the president of Torontobased Harris Steel Group Inc., said that his family has voted for the Liberals since his grandfather arrived in Canada in the late 1800s. But Harris, a former party fund raiser, has now turned away from the party. “I am going to vote for the Conservatives, and if they ask me, I will give them money,” said Harris.

Organizational difficulties are also buffeting the party. In Quebec, Turner recently appointed Rémi Bujold, a former aide to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, as chief of the party’s organizational drive in Quebec. But a rift between the Liberal leader and Bourassa has now developed. And

many provincial Liberals dismiss Bujold as an ineffectual organizer who was responsible for Bourassa’s losing his own riding during the Liberals’ 1985 election sweep. In Ontario, campaign chairman Norman MacLeod, a respected political veteran, has culti-

vated valuable links with the provincial Liberal machine. But lingering disputes from the 1984 leadership convention are hurting party morale.

Most Liberal problems revolve around the leadership abilities of Turner, a shy and often-charming man

who clearly has difficulties with interpersonal relations. In four years he has gone through four different sets of advisers and become estranged from most former leadership rivals. Friends say that he refuses to curb his celebrated temper or follow sage advice. In one case, he knew that highprofile Quebec businessman Paul Martin Jr. did not support his determination to tear up the free trade agreement, but Turner did not attempt to iron out the differences before Martin addressed their disagreement at a Liberal policy conference last month. Many organizers also say that Turner has not taken time to attract prospective candidates with personal attention. Said Ross Fitzpatrick, former B.C. election-readiness chairman: “I am disappointed in his effectiveness. He has developed no concept for the country nor for his role as leader.”

Power: But the possibility of regaining power has an overwhelming allure. If the Mulroney government makes some serious mistakes before the election, the Liberals’ spirits may revive. After months of difficult coaching, Turner may shine when he begins to campaign nationally. As Ontario’s MacLeod said last week, “All of those problems go away with electoral success.”