JOHN TURNER’S SENATE GAMBLE
John Turner knew that he was gambling with his political future —and he needed time to think things over. During a two-week vacation in early July at the family cottage on the shores of Lake-of-theWoods, near the Ontario-Manitoba border, Turner spent long hours “chopping wood or just staring out the window,” a friend said later. The 59-year-old Liberal leader was wrestling with a decision that could make or break his political career. Since
early June, he and his closest advisers had been weighing the implications of a bold new strategy to seize the initiative in the fight against Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s controversial Canada-U.S. free trade deal. The plan was simple but fraught with risks: Turner would ask the Liberal-dominated Senate to be prepared to stall passage of the trade legislation beyond the Dec. 31 deadline for ratification, leaving Mulroney little choice but to call a
general election on the issue this fall. Last Tuesday night, July 19, Turner finally made up his mind to act. Fortified by the results of a just-completed secret opinion poll indicating that most voters favored an election on free trade, Turner summoned a group of Liberal MPs, senators and strategists to Stornoway, his official Ottawa residence. Recalled Turner’s principal secretary, Peter Connolly, who was at the meeting: “He listened to everybody and did not intervene, but it seemed like his mind
was made up. They could have argued all night and nobody could have talked him out of it.” The next day, Turner revealed his bold strategy to his parliamentary caucus of MPs and senators in a closed-door meeting on Parliament Hill, then crossed Wellington Street for a hurriedly arranged news conference at the National Press Building. Declared Turner under the glare of television lights: “The Senate is not the issue here. I am the issue. I asked the sena-
tors to do this. I will take that responsibility.” With that statement, Turner drew the battle lines for a federal election that now appears all but certain to be held this fall. And by placing himself at the centre of the free trade debate, Turner clearly put his own leadership on the line. “I think it is an incredible gamble,” confessed Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs. The risks for Turner appear gravest in Western Canada and Quebec, where polls show that public support for free trade is strong. Complained a former Quebec Liberal MP who is still active in the party’s affairs in that province: “The party’s slide in the polls here is scary, and this will only make things worse.” Options: The Liberal leader’s manoeuvre left Mulroney with several options. If the Prime Minister wanted to avoid an early election, he could ask Washington to agree to defer putting free trade into force until sometime after the previously arranged date of Jan. 1, 1989. Some constitutional authorities say that he could also use his executive power to make the trade deal final without the approval of Parliament. But both of those courses carried the risk of making Mul-
roney appear frightened to face the electorate. For those reasons, most analysts expected that the Prime Minister will dissolve Parliament and go to the polls in mid-to-late October. Said Tory Senator Lowell Murray: “Turner’s use of the Senate is the perfect argument we needed to win another majority government. We will be able to say to the voters, ‘Speak up and speak strongly, because only a strong majority will get the deal through.’ ” Indeed, with recent public opinion polls showing the Tories steadily gaining ground on the Liberals—a Gallup poll in early July put the Liberals at 37 per cent of decided voters, compared with 35 per cent for the Tories and 27 per cent for the NDP—the Tories were already laying plans for a fall election. As one senior party strategist put it: “The only problem was that Mulroney was under intense pressure from the business community to get the deal passed by Parliament before going to the polls. Now, Turner has let him off the hook.”
In the House of Commons, Mulroney moved quickly to try to turn the Liber-
al strategy to his advantage. Speaking less than two hours after Turner’s announcement on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said, “The leader of the Liberal party has asked the Senate of Canada, a bunch of appointed people, to hijack the most fundamental rights of the Canadian House of Commons.” Mulroney also implied that Turner was guilty of hypocrisy, drawing attention to the Liberal leader’s long-standing record as an advocate of the supremacy of the House of Commons over the Senate.
Validity: Mulroney was not alone in questioning the validity of Turner’s challenge. Constitutional experts generally agreed that it was perfectly legal, but some said that it contravened Parliament’s unwritten conventions (page 16). And NDP Leader Ed Broadbent condemned the approach: “Mr. Turner has clearly decided the end does justify the means and is prepared to abandon democracy.”
Despite that, some Tory strategists said it was unlikely that Turner’s un-
orthodox use of the Senate would arouse much public opposition. Said Conservative party president William Jarvis: “I think we can always talk about the Senate, but it would never be the number 1 issue. If we did try to use it like that, we would be forced to say what we would do in terms of Senate reform.” Moreover, the Tories have assiduously sought to avoid turning the next election into a single-issue campaign by pointing to what they say is a broad record of achievement. Insisted Murray: “Free trade is bound to be central but it will not be the only issue in the campaign. We do not want this to distract us from the overriding issue, which is our record.”
In addition, some observers said that Turner’s bold stroke would help to counteract his reputation as a weak and indecisive leader. Said Saskatchewan provincial Liberal party leader Ralph Goodale: “He has demonstrated that he is in charge of events, rather than the other way around.” And Turner’s move to usurp
leadership of the anti-free-trade forces clearly unsettled some New Democrats, whose party strongly opposes the agreement. Said Regina West New Democrat MP Leslie Benjamin: “It puts the NDP in a bit of a box, all right.”
Surprise: Although Turner’s announcement took the Tories and even most Liberals outside the caucus by surprise, it was the culmination of weeks of consultation with a select group of key advisers. Connolly, for one, said that Turner first broached the idea with him in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car early in May on their way back to Ottawa after Turner had delivered a speech. “It was late at night and we were both tired,” said Connolly, whose father, John Connolly, was a Liberal senator from 1953 until 1981. “He was worried. He kept saying that if he became prime minister, he would be better off facing a new U.S. administration if the trade deal was not already in place.” One way of avoiding
that, Turner suggested, was to use the Senate to force Mulroney to call an election before the deal became law. Said Connolly: “I was against the idea at first. I told him that the last God damned thing we could ever afford was to have the Senate block it and let the Senate become the issue.”
Idea: But Turner did not let the idea drop. In an interview with Maclean’s last week, the Liberal leader said that he sent instructions to the party’s strategy committee, led by Senator Michael Kirby, in early June to consider ways of responding to the Tories’ free trade legislation. Said Turner: “I asked Senator Kirby and the Liberal strategy committee to run through some options, including this one” (page 14). Kirby and Connolly later wrote a memo outlining advantages and disadvantages of Turner’s suggested use of the Senate and sent it to the leader at his Lake-of-the-Woods retreat early in July. Said Kirby: “I think Turner was the architect of his own strategy.” He added: “There was no denying Turner’s deep conviction opposing this deal. The trick was to find a strategy to match it.”
But last week, one member of the strategy committee contradicted some aspects of Turner’s version of events.
Speaking on condition that he not be identified, he said that although a few members of the strategy committee knew about the plan before last week, most of the others did not. He added that Turner decided to proceed with the plan only after Mulroney told reporters following a Tory strategy session at Meech Lake on July 16 that he intended to press ahead with his government’s legislative agenda and that it was too early to consider an election. Said the Liberal adviser: “We had always assumed that there would be an election before the trade deal was through, so we never had to contemplate this. Mulroney changed that with his statement at Meech Lake.”
Reservations: It has also become clear that as Turner took key Liberals into his confidence, many of them opposed his strategy. “A number of people tried to talk him out of it, but the boss was hot to trot,” a Turner aide confided. “His mind was made up.” Among those who expressed reservations, Maclean’s has learned, were Liberal caucus chair-
man Brian Tobin and national campaign co-chairman André Ouellet. But, said Senator Alasdair Graham, the other campaign co-chairman: “When the leader comes with his mind set and fire in his belly, you do not turn him off.”
Still, the recent downturn in his party’s standing in Quebec public opinion troubled Turner. The July Gallup poll had shown the Tories gaining popularity in that province at the expense of both the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. “The leader said that he
was disturbed that there seemed to be this blip in Quebec,” a senior Turner aide recalled. “He called a few people together and said, ‘Guys, what’s happening? Go find out.’ ”
In response, Kirby ordered Torontobased Goldfarb Consultants—a prominent polling firm in which he is a partner—to conduct an urgent sampling of public opinion in Quebec. Turner aides told Maclean’s that the poll, taken between July 14 and July 16, found that 75 per cent disapproved of Turner’s longstanding pledge to tear up the CanadaU.S. free trade agreement if he becomes prime minister. At the same time, how-
ever, 70 per cent of those sampled said that they wanted a chance to vote on the agreement before it became law. And even among Tories, 50 per cent favored an election on the agreement.
Turner saw the poll results last Tuesday morning. And at the Stornoway meeting that night, he told about a dozen senior Liberals—including Senate House Leader Allan MacEachen—of his decision. Turner’s advisers had also prepared a 23-page internal document that provided detailed responses to a long list of questions that critics of the strategy might raise. “Obviously, the stand John Turner has taken on this issue is not without some risks,” said the document. But, it added, “It is more important that Canadians get to vote on this issue than it is that John Turner worry about being embarrassed or that he worry about what people will say about him.”
Premiers: In telephone calls the following morning, Turner revealed his plan to the four Liberal premiers: Quebec’s Robert Bourassa, Ontario’s David Peterson, New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and Prince Edward Island’s Joseph Ghiz. McKenna, who along with Bourassa is a strong supporter of free trade with the United States, later told reporters: “I asked him if he was looking for my advice, and he said, ‘No, not really.’ So I did not give him my advice. He is the national leader and has his own sense of strategy. I have mine.” Neither Turner nor Bourassa would discuss their conversation. But Raymond Garneau, Turner’s Quebec lieutenant, said that he, too, had spoken to the premier: “Mr. Bourassa assured me that he would not get involved in the next federal election.”
Then, at the Wednesday caucus meeting, at least five Liberal MPs and senators spoke out against Turner’s plan. “It is madness. It is crazy,” one of the MPs, a Turner supporter, later told Maclean’s. “The problem is that Turner follows everybody else’s advice. His advisers told him that he had to do this because he had an image of being indecisive. Instead, what this has done is put Turner on the defensive. It looks as though we are following the government’s agenda—that the polls showed things were improving for the Tories and that we got spooked.” Turner, however, was adamant that the strategy was essential to portray the Liberals as leading the fight against free trade. And the meeting ended with
what one participant described as a “rousing gung-ho” from the caucus. Before leaving, Turner reportedly declared, “If I am going to do this, I just hope you are with me when the going gets tough —not just today.”
Turner was to embark this week on a hectic two-week blitz of Western Canada and Northern Ontario. Before leaving Ottawa, he insisted that his party was primed for an election: “We have the funds, we have the candidates, we have the policies, we have the platform, we have the will.” But privately, some Liberals remained troubled about the party’s prospects. One Turner confidant, who opposed the decision to call upon the Senate to delay the free trade legislation, said that he doubted the party could do better than form a minority government.
A Liberal MP also told Maclean’s that internal party forecasts suggested that the Tories are poised to overtake the Liberals in popular support. He added, “The longer it goes, the worse it looks for us.”
But while the Liberals quietly debated the merits of an early election, the To-
ries still had unfinished business in Ottawa. Last week, deputy Conservative House Leader Douglas Lewis said that the government’s priority is to debate a resolution on abortion. In addition, the Tories want the Commons to give third and final reading to a number of key
bills. Apart from the trade legislation, they included measures to improve day care services, reform the income tax system and update the laws governing Canadian broadcasting.
That hectic schedule did not prevent several senior Tories from trying to
squeeze in a brief summer vacation. Tory party president Jarvis, for one, spent the weekend at his rustic log cabin on Lake Talon, near North Bay, Ont., where he was getting an early start on chores he normally would do in the fall. Said Jarvis: “I am putting
in the winter firewood.” With a fall election apparently looming, Jarvis’s labors seemed to make eminent sense.