August 1 1988


August 1 1988


John Turner launched his big gamble on Wednesday, July 20. Immediately he was at the centre of a political whirlwind as Ottawa and the nation debated his order to the Liberal majority in the Senate: delay the government's free trade legislation until Canadians have a chance to vote on the issue in a general election. When Maclean’s interviewed him late the next day, Turner was clearly tired, but he seemed to be enjoying the sensation that he had created. Sipping tea with a wedge of lemon and referring from time to time to a well-thumbed copy of the free trade agreement, he spoke with Ottawa Bureau Chief Ross Laver:

Maclean’s: Should the Senate, an appointed body, have the right to obstruct the will of the elected House?

Turner: There are precedents for this in Canadian history. Whether I’m right or wrong, Canadians will judge. Look, I wrote a book on the Senate—my university thesis in 1949. In it, I recommended that the Senate be abolished, and those words are forever locked in stone. But I know what I’m talking about. There are a number of cases where the Senate has

delayed a measure sufficiently for the government to be forced to get authority from the people. And as often as not, the government has failed to get that authority.

Maclean’s: So the Senate is not an issue? Turner: I am saying that the trade issue outranks the Senate issue. Besides, all the Senate is doing is giving the people an opportunity to decide. If that is antidemocratic, I do not understand why. Maclean’s: You have said that you have the support of the Liberal caucus. But surely some members had serious concerns about your strategy, even if they agreed to keep quiet.

Turner: I am saying there was a consensus. Everyone was given an opportunity to express his or her view. To my knowledge, everyone has accepted the leader’s position.

Maclean’s: But you also know that if you lose the election, your leadership will be on the line.

Turner: Well, I feel pretty good. Maclean’s: If you do become prime minister and tear up the trade deal, what alternative can you offer to shield Canadians from U.S. protectionism?

Turner: I would say to our American friends that they took my predecessor to the cleaners but that now we have to look at the situation in a different way. We have always done better with the U.S. multilaterally, in international negotiations. We have no quarrel with lowering tariffs. Liberal administrations since the war lowered tariffs from an average of 40 per cent to four per cent and ensured that 80 per cent of our exports entered the U.S. free of tariffs. But for that remaining 20 per cent, Mr. Mulroney sold the shop. He gave away control of energy, investment, capital markets, agricultural strategy, our future cultural initiatives and our social programs. The only purpose was to get secure access to American markets, and he didn’t get it.

Maclean’s: You considered this strategy for six weeks before deciding to adopt it. Does that imply that you had serious doubts about it?

Turner: I was seeking advice from a number of people. I asked Senator Michael Kirby and the Liberal strategy committee to run through some options, including this one. The downside, of course, is that the Prime Minister will attempt to make the Senate the issue. I think the fundamental issue is that the people should decide on an issue of this magnitude. It is that simple.

Maclean’s: If the Tories win a minority in the next election, will you remain as Liberal leader?

Turner: It would be up to the party to decide, but I would be content to remain. And I will tell you why. If the Tories do not get a majority, they probably will not stay around for very long. Maclean’s: And if the Tories win a majority?

Turner: That is an academic question which I do not think will be realized. Maclean’s: Do you think that many voters will consider that this was an act of desperation on your part, an attempt to force an election while you still hold a narrow lead in the polls?

Turner: I do not govern my life by polls. The issue is far more important than any particular individual. I will be quite happy to go down in history as the person who gave Canadians an opportunity to decide on this fundamental issue of nationhood and sovereignty and independence. And I am also confident that if I am given the opportunity to take that document across the country in a general election, most Canadians will agree with me that we should never have signed it.

Maclean’s: The question some Liberals are asking is whether you have the stomach to lead them in that fight.

Turner: Give me an issue of the right magnitude and I will have the stomach for it. This issue makes my whole return to public life worth while for me. □