COVER

LIBERALS IN REVOLT

ROSS LAVER May 9 1988
COVER

LIBERALS IN REVOLT

ROSS LAVER May 9 1988

LIBERALS IN REVOLT

COVER

Liberal Leader John Turner and his wife, Geills, had just sat down to dinner when there was an urgent telephone call from Liberal Senator Pietro Rizzuto. Rizzuto, a longtime supporter of Turner and a key party fund raiser, told his embattled leader that they had to meet as soon as possible to discuss a critical matter. Two hours later, over cups of coffee in the study of Turner’s official Ottawa residence, the 54-yearold Senator sketched out the details of what he called a “definite threat” to Turner’s leadership. According to Rizzuto, 22 Liberal members of Parliament—out of a total of 39—had signed letters demanding that he tender his resignation and call a leadership convention. Stunned, Turner summoned five of his closest supporters to an emergency meeting later that night. “What I need you guys to do,” an aide who took part in the session quoted Turner as saying, “is to find out as fast as possible if this thing is real.” Those events began one of the most gruelling and humiliating weeks in the political life of John Napier Turner—the blue-eyed corporate lawyer

who was once seen as the savior of the Liberal party and whom some now view as its most glaring liability. Aided in large measure by the failure of his opponents to stage an organized, sustained attack on his leadership, Turner succeeded in quashing the rebellion within his party and in proclaiming once again that he intends to remain at its helm through the next federal election. But even some Turner loyalists acknowledged that the affair would have lingering—perhaps even devastating—consequences for the party. Said Jacques Guilbault, a Montreal MP and one of Turner’s few remaining defenders in the Quebec caucus: “It was stupid, just stupid. How can people go to war against their own general?”

Pressure: The attack against Turner also made it painfully obvious that the party lacks the organization and determination needed to fight the next election. By week’s end, six of the 22 rebels, led by Toronto MP Charles Caccia, were still refusing to back down from their criticisms of Turner’s leadership. Under strong pressure from the party establishment, the rest swal-

lowed their complaints and, in public at least, pledged their support for the leader.

Moreover, at least two of the dissidents-Toronto MPs John Nunziata and Sergio Marchi—said that they wanted to consult their riding associations before deciding on their own political futures. Said Nunziata: “You do not have to be brilliant to understand the consequences of speaking out against the leader in caucus. I knew when I signed the letter that I had to be prepared to put my personal ambitions on the line. My future is in the hands of the Lord.”

Clashes: Another potential casualty of the uprising was party president Michel Robert. An ambitious 50-yearold Montreal lawyer who plans to run for office in the downtown Montreal riding of Rosemont, Robert spoke out publicly against his leader last August over Turner’s decision to support the Meech Lake constitutional accord— which recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society” and gives increased powers to the provinces. Since then, Robert and Turner have clashed repeatedly over the party’s deepening financial cri-

sis. That debate culminated two weeks ago with Robert’s announcement that spending by Turner’s office would be slashed this year by $300,000 and that as many as nine staff positions at party headquarters in Ottawa would have to be eliminated.

According to Liberal officials, the party president hurriedly arranged a meeting with Turner early last week to deny any part in the rebellion. But sources close to Turner said privately that relations between the two men had sunk to their lowest level ever—and at least one senior Liberal said publicly that she did not believe Robert’s disclaimer. Declared MP Sheila Copps:

“He has been saying that sort of thing for months, and yet, privately, he has been working to undermine the leader.” Robert made no public statement about his future, and the week ended in a flurry of conflicting rumors that he was about to resign or had decided to stay at his post.

Rumors: In fact, Turner supporters floated a number of rumors about who might have been behind the attempted coup. As some loyalists saw it, the uprising was all the work of former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Chrétien, who lost the leadership to Turner in 1984. Said a close Turner confidant: “It isn’t exactly that these people want Jesus Christ to lead the party—they just want someone with those initials.”

Others pointed to Senator Keith Davey, a former adviser to Pierre Trudeau, who represents the so-called Old Guard of the federal party. Said Ontario campaign chairman Norman

MacLeod: “It is Keith Davey stirring up that little crowd of his again. I think this whole business was deliberately timed to take the bloom off the rose of how well we did in the Manitoba election. That’s how vindictive it all

is.” Davey firmly denied that he had anything to do with the revolt.

Rizzuto himself told Maclean's that the rebellion began to take shape four weeks ago when three Liberal MPs, whom he refused to identify, requested

that he approach Turner on their behalf and ask for his resignation (page 22). Later, 22 MPs signed letters urging Turner to resign for the good of the party. “The letters dealt exclusively with the question of whether Turner could lead the party to victory,” said an adviser to the leader. “No other issues were even mentioned, not even Meech Lake.” Meanwhile, Copps said that many of the dissidents had signed the letters after being assured that their role in the affair would not become public. She added, “I guess you could say there was more than a touch of naïveté about the whole operation.”

Disturbing: Although Rizzuto described his role as simply that of a messenger, some senior Liberals said that they were convinced that he played a more active part in the revolt. Speaking on condition that they not be identified, they said that Rizzuto apparently learned that one or more Toronto-area MPs had threatened to fuel potentially damaging stories about Turner’s personal spending habits—including widely circulated rumors that he used party funds to pay for a maid for his Toronto apartment and to buy $40,000 worth of custom-tailored suits. Cape Breton MP Russell MacLellan said that he decided to sign one of the letters after hearing “stories that spending in the party had involved maids and clothing, and that was disturbing to me.” But he added that he backed out of the rebellion after Turner flatly denied the charges

during last week’s Liberal caucus meeting.

Many of the rebellious MPs appeared to believe that Turner, once confronted with the evidence of an uprising, would agree to go quietly. Said a Turner loyalist from Quebec: “It started out with a lot of good intentions and also some overconfidence. This used to be the way things worked in the back rooms in the old days. If they knew that this was ever going to go public, I am sure there would never have been more than five or six signatures on those letters.”

Serious: But Turner made it clear from the beginning that he had no intention of stepping down. Instead, he confronted his critics head on during a seven-hour caucus meeting that began at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and, after an adjournment for Question Period in the House of Commons, did not end until 9 that night. Said MP Brian Tobin, who, as caucus chairman, presided over the meeting: “The atmosphere was deadly serious. At times it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”

As Turner listened, caucus members rose one by one to air their grievances about his leadership. Meanwhile, Tobin kept a running tally of the dissidents. A handwritten list later obtained by Maclean's showed that he scribbled “yes” beside the names of those who spoke out against Turner or who were suspected of involvement in the plot to overthrow him. They included Senators Philippe Gigantès and Charlie Watt and MPs Nunziata, MacLellan, David Dingwall, Carlo Rossi, Lucie Pépin, Alfonso Gagliano, Sergio Marchi and Caccia. Next to the name of André Ouellet, an influential Quebec MP who supported Turner in the 1984 leadership race, Tobin had scribbled “maybe.”

Control: In addition, notes passed between the participants show that, at one point, Tobin advised Turner of the need to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. Wrote Tobin:

“Leader—I believe we are going to have to come back here after 6 to continue. If we just walk out of here today, my reading is that we lose any semblance of unity and control.” Another note, addressed to Tobin and unsigned, read, “It may not work, but you had better suggest a neutral press line to caucus.” As well, Turner’s supporters warned the leader that it would be a mistake to ask to see

the letters that the dissidents had signed. “You haven’t seen letters—so you assume they don’t exist,” a loyalist wrote. “Don’t know who signed—don’t want to know.”

Emerging from the meeting that night, Turner told reporters that he had received the support of a “solid majority” of the caucus and that he had no intention of changing his policies. “The party is bigger than the leader, the party is bigger than the caucus,” he declared. “I will stay on as long as I have to, to become prime minister.” At the same time, Turner said that he had promised MPs that there would be no recriminations against those who took part in the revolt. “I’ve never felt that an open discussion in caucus should be penalized,” he said.

According to a close Turner aide, the Liberal leader wanted to avoid further antagonizing his opponents within the party. Said the aide: “He has won and he knows it, but he does not want to gloat.” But other Turner loyalists poured scorn on the organizers of the failed plot. Said Guilbault: “I think

they should crawl back under their rocks.” Added an adviser to Turner: “It was a pathetic performance. These guys were acting like a bunch of small-town aldermen.” Blow: Still, senior Liberal strategists acknowledged that the public spectacle of a caucus mutiny had dealt a severe blow to the party’s fortunes. And with the party already more than $6.2 million in debt, there were fears that the crucial task of fund-raising would become even more difficult than it already is. Said Senator Alasdair Graham, Rizzuto’s partner as co-chairman of the national Liberal campaign: “It is very hard to put a good face on this. There are so many alligators out there trying to drag the poor man down.” Former Quebec MP Pierre Deniger admitted that the open display of party infighting “certainly makes us vulnerable to an early election call.”

For Turner, there was also the painful realization that his hold over the party remains tenuous at best. Searching for a silver lining to the episode, his supporters voiced hopes that Turner’s refusal to yield to the rebels would earn sympathy from grassroots Liberals across the country, especially if they could be convinced that the rebellion was inspired by members of the party’s Old Guard. But Turner also faces another important test of his leadership this week when the Commons is expected to give its approval to the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Last October, when the issue was first debated in the Commons, 11 Liberals defied Turner and voted against the accord. This time, Turner’s supporters acknowledge that as many as 20 Liberal MPs may rebel against the party line. And an Angus Reid Associates national poll published on Saturday found that 49 per cent of respondents wanted Turner to resign from the leadership, while only 35 per cent thought he should stay. As one distraught party veteran put it: “It is no longer a question of whether John Turner is fit or unfit to lead the Liberal party. It is a question of whether the Liberal party itself is fit to govern.”

-ROSS LAVER with HILARY MACKENZIE and BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa

HILARY MACKENZIE

BRUCE WALLACE