Dressed in a cobalt-blue suit and sipping from a glass of Perrier water, Liberal Leader John Turner appeared relaxed and confident last week during a 30-minute-long interview with Maclean’s. He spoke to Ottawa Bureau Chief Ross Laver and Ottawa Bureau Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie in his oak-panelled office on Parliament Hill:
Maclean’s: The most recent Gallup poll gives you your lowest personal rating in almost four years, with only 13 per cent of Canadians considering you best choice for leader for the country. How can you improve your standing? Turner: I have been afflicted with a bad image since the 1984 election campaign. Having been away for nine to 10 years, I underestimated the difficulty in returning to active politics. I was rusty. I think Canadians are going to be surprised in the next election, because I am back to speed. They are going to see a new John Turner—confident of the issues, my own team, comfortable with the media.
Maclean’s: A cynic might suggest that this is only the latest in a series of image make-overs. How many “new John Turners” can there be?
Turner: I think the whole point of the exercise is to let the real John Turner come out. If he does, I am confident we will win.
Maclean’s: When he comes out, what will the Canadian public see?
Turner: Someone who cares deeply about Canada, who has some solutions for the country and who provides the only viable alternative to Mr. Mulroney and the Conservative party.
Maclean’s: You have spent a lot of time recently with veteran broadcaster Henry Comor, who was brought in to improve your public speaking. Do you feel that his coaching has made a difference?
Turner: He is excellent. And I am improving as well,because over the past 3 V2 years I have become more comfortable with the issues. Some of the principal issues now before the country, like the trade agreement and the phoney tax reform of the Conservative government, are issues that I feel very comfortable with and very strong about—and that shows.
Maclean’s: Even among committed Liberal voters, only about one-third say that you are the best person for the job. Does that trouble you?
Turner: The only number that counts is the party number. When people decide which party they are going to vote for, they have already factored in the leadership. That is the accurate figure. My own party is solidly behind me. I am saying that there are people—usually anonymous—who don’t like me or who disagree with me. Certainly, that is part of the territory, particularly in opposition.
Maclean’s: But one picks up a sense across the country from important Liberal supporters that there is an overwhelmimg sense of apathy and even disillusionment.
Turner: That is not my sense of it and I know more Liberals than anybody else alive. I can tell you the motivation is there, the confidence is there. Compare today to Sept. 5, 1984, after we took the worst electoral defeat in our history—it was a massacre—when people in the party and in the media were saying that the Liberal party is dead. We didn’t have one provincial government, we had no provincial seats west of the Ontario border, no seats in the territories. And here we are: Liberalism back in Quebec, in Ontario, in Prince Edward Island, back in New Brunswick and soon to be back in Newfoundland, and doing phenomenally in Manitoba. Something has to be right.
Maclean’s: Are you saying that the party is unified and that your position as leader is unquestioned?
Turner: I am saying that it is never unanimous. But I have been elected and reaffirmed at two huge democratic conventions—June, 1984, and November, 1986. When it is put to the test, it’s there.
Maclean’s: Given that overwhelming response in 1986, are you frustrated by the whisper campaign that still does exist?
Turner: I have no respect for whispers, I have no respect for anonymity and I don’t pay much attention to anonymous sources.
Maclean’s: A few months ago you told Maclean’s that the party was “right on budget in terms of revenues. ” If that was true, why is the party more than $5 million in debt?
Turner: We are reallocating expenditures from the regular administration of the party to election purposes, so there will be some dislocation there. On revenues, we are ahead of budget in corporate collections, we are ahead of budget in direct mail, we are behind
budget on popular fund-raising at the grassroots level. In terms of corporate collections, we are running even with the Conservatives. In direct mail, we are 10 years behind the Conservatives; we didn’t have a direct mail worth a dime. In popular fund-raising, we have to get
at it, and I am determined to do so. But we will have adequate funding for the next election.
Maclean’s: Will you have dealt with the debt?
Turner: We will continue to reduce the debt. In an election year we are confident that we are going to get the funding. We are confident that, under the Election Expenses Act, the rebates from the chief electoral officer and the rebates from the candidates give us initial financing that is quite bankable.
Maclean’s: What about the suggestion
that corporations that were previously faithful donors to the Liberals are disturbed by the party ’s swing to the left on such issues as free trade and a guaranteed national income?
Turner: I have put that question to our chief fund raisers in the provinces where we collect most of the corporate money, and that is just not so. Maclean’s: What is the problem at the grassroots level?
Turner: The constituencies, individually, are in pretty good shape. But there is not yet an easy relationship between
the constituencies and the national office.
Maclean’s: Won’t some people be put off by the fact that the party gave you $33,000 last year toward your Toronto housing costs?
Turner: The party reimburses me for the equivalent of hotel space while I am in Toronto and the party reimburses me for legitimate expenses of a leader or a chief executive officer. We calculated that we save the party money. We get reimbursed for the equivalent of hotel
accommodation when we are on party business in Metro Toronto or in southern Ontario and stay in Toronto. If I were to stay at a hotel instead of the apartment, it would have cost the party $5,000 more last year.
Maclean’s: Is your Toronto accommodation an apartment that you own? Turner: No. It is a rental apartment. Maclean’s: Are you hopeful that your perceived role as the underdog will actually benefit you in a campaign? Turner: I think that the expectations were too high in 1984. I am delighted
that they are too low in 1988. Maclean’s: So, it could work very much in your favor?
Turner: It will.
Maclean’s: There have been reports, which you now appear to have quashed, that you were considering abandoning the Vancouver Quadra riding, where you were elected in 198 kTurner: At the first public meeting that I held in Vancouver after the election, I was asked that question, and I said the people of Quadra elected me and
I will hold myself accountable to the people of Quadra in the next federal election.
Maclean’s: Earlier this year you
were asked by CTV reporter Pamela Wallin to comment on rumors that you may have a drinking problem. You denied the accusation, but what sort of response have you had from the public?
Turner: Outrage that the question was asked. It is based on no evidence, attempting to legitimize a rumor— no evidence, not true. And for a person like myself who is asked such a question, [it is] a nonwinner no matter how you answer it. Maclean’s: We have been told by aides of yours that they have advised you not to be seen drinking in public since then, perhaps because it is open to misinterpretation. Turner: Well, you have to avoid that now. Even a glass of Perrier looks like a glass of gin. It is ridiculous. Ask any friend of mine whether there is any evidence for that rumor. I am not going to fuel an unfounded rumor.
Maclean’s: Prime Minister Mulroney recently demanded a “full accounting” of your role in the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, suggesting that it was in the public interest for you to break your vow of cabinet secrecy. How do you respond?
Turner: The Prime Minister was counselling me to break the law. I am bound by cabinet oath of maintaining the secrecy, the background and reasons and conversations in cabinet and the reasons for that momentous decision. I am also bound by the Official Secrets Act, and only time =* will release me. I am not one I who attempts to rewrite hisz tory. I will leave it to the students and experts. Maclean’s: Will you have to take the wraps off your policy ideas before the next election? Turner: We have had the most thorough policy review in our party since 1960 and the Kingston conference. We are better positioned in policy than I can ever remember as a party. How we reveal that policy, and when, will be a strategic decision, but we are ready.
Maclean’s: Do you wish you had a bit more time before the next election? Turner: We are ready. If it were tomorrow, we would be on the road. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.