Liberal Leader John Turner has often brushed aside suggestions that he lacks the support of some of his party’s most influential members. Last week, Turner even joked about the dissension within his party while attending a caucus meeting in St. John’s, Nfld. Tanned and relaxed after a 10-day holiday in Jamaica, he told about 1,000 Newfoundland Liberals in a hotel overlooking the harbor that a recent operation to relieve a debilitating pinched nerve in his back had been successful. He paused for a moment, then added, “All of the knives have been removed.” Turner’s remark drew howls of laughter from the crowd, but it also underscored the uncertainty that surrounds his leadership in the wake of the party’s defeat in the Nov. 21 federal election.

Turner, 59, has declined to say whether he wants to remain as leader long enough to fight the next election. If he does, most senior Liberals predict that he would lose the automatic leadership review that would have to be held at the party’s next national convention, planned for Calgary in October. Meanwhile, several potential leadership candidates—including former cabinet minister Jean Chrétien and newly elected Montreal MP Paul Martin Jr.—are lining up supporters in the expectation that Turner will announce his resignation this summer, paving the way for a leadership convention in 1990.

The jostling among leadership contenders has brought into the open policy differences among Liberals on some major issues, includ-

ing free trade and constitutional reform. And those disputes could hamper efforts to rebuild the party. Said national caucus chairman Brian Tobin last week: “There is a growing awareness that we ought not to catch what used to be called the Tory disease”—a phrase once used to describe the persistent feuding among Conservatives when that party was in opposition.

Turner himself sounded optimistic on Feb. 22 at the conclusion of the two-day caucus retreat in St. John’s. At a news conference, the Liberal leader vowed that his party’s 83 MPs would provide a unified and effective opposition to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s majority Conservative government. Declared the leader: “We are ready for the return of the House of Commons.” But Turner was clearly annoyed by the fact that some Liberal MPs, including Martin, have publicly contradicted party policy. “I would say that there was irritation expressed,” the Liberal leader said. He added, “Once a consensus is established in caucus, that should be the position publicly of our members until caucus decides otherwise.”

Privately, Turner aides said that several other rookie MPs chastised Martin during last week’s closed-door caucus meeting for failing to toe the party line. Martin, a wealthy Montreal shipping executive, told a Toronto audience

last month that the Liberals’ promise to tear up the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was a “dead end.” And in St. John’s last week, Martin again appeared out of step with his leader when he told reporters that he favored immediate talks between Ottawa and the provinces to address some of the “very legitimate questions that have been raised” about the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which, among other things, brings Quebec into the Constitution and recognizes the province as a “distinct society.”

Martin’s views on Meech Lake are similar to those held by several other Liberal MPs,

including fellow leadership hopeful Lloyd Axworthy of Winnipeg. But his position conflicts with Turner’s own view that no further constitutional reform is possible until the accord has been ratified by the two provinces that have yet to do so, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Turner swiftly repudiated Martin’s remarks. “Meech Lake is out of our hands,” he said outside the meeting. “The matter is closed.”

For his part, Martin appeared surprised by the controversy that his remarks had generated. “I am not used to all these reporters,” he said at one point when asked to explain the discrepancies. Later, emerging from a caucus session, he brushed past reporters and declined to answer questions about Meech Lake. Declared Martin: “I do not disagree with anything the leader says. I think it is very important that we show unity as a party.”

At the same time, Martin denied that his recent policy statements were intended to set the stage for a future run at the leadership. “I do not think there is a leadership

race and I do not think we should have one,” he said. “I hope Mr. Turner plans to stay around for a long time.” Still, several MPs who attended last week’s meeting said that Martin had already contacted them to ask for their support. “I got a telephone call from Paul Martin two days after the election,” said rookie ScarboroughAgincourt MP James Karygiannis. “Later, we got together, and I asked him straight out if he was going to run for the leadership. He said yes. He even promised to consider me for cabinet.” Two weeks ago, Karygiannis said, he received a telephone call from Chrétien. “He said he still had not made up his mind about running, but that if he did run, he hoped that he could count on my support.”

Of the two men, Martin appears to have done the most to prepare for a leadership contest. Indeed, Liberal insiders say that the Montreal businessman has little choice but to get his campaign machinery assembled and running quickly: the fluently bilingual son of former Liberal cabinet minister and high commissioner to London Paul Martin, the younger Martin is widely known in business circles but lacks Chrétien’s national profile and charisma. Moreover, even Martin’s supporters acknowledge that his public-speaking style is uninspir-

ing. Said a lawyer who has helped organize events for Martin in Toronto: “Paul needs more time to build up his exposure and experience.” Added Jonathan Schneiderman, a Martin activist: “Expectations were high when Paul spoke in Toronto last month, but no one was overwhelmed.”

Despite those problems, Martin has put together a formidable list of supporters. They include Gerald Schwartz, a Toronto businessman and prominent Liberal fund raiser; Michael Robinson, currently the party’s finance secretary; and former Quebec City MP Dennis Dawson, who is co-ordinating Martin’s Quebec organization. In addition, Toronto freelance communications consultant Allan Golombek, a former speech writer for Ontario Premier David Peterson, is now writing speeches for Martin and would likely perform a similar role during a leadership campaign. Patrick Gossage, a press secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau between 1976 and 1982 whose firm has handled public relations for Martin’s shipping company, CSL Group Inc., has been asked by one of Martin’s organizers to become the media adviser for the campaign.

By contrast, Chrétien’s supporters say that they can afford to wait until Turner decides to step down. Ottawa lawyer Edward Golden-

berg, a close friend and adviser, said that a Chrétien team “could be thrown together in 20 minutes with a phone call or two” because of the former cabinet minister’s high profile and grassroots popularity, particularly in Englishspeaking Canada.

Chrétien also has the experience of having sought the leadership once before, in 1984, when Turner won it. Among those who supported him then and are ready to pitch in again are John Rae, a vice-president of the Montrealbased Power Corp. of Canada, David Collenette, a former Trudeau cabinet minister and secretary general of the party, and Ronald Irwin, a lawyer and former MP from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Said one prominent supporter: “It is a pretty informal structure right now but it is broad. Chrétien does not want to be perceived as a man who is going to throw Turner out.”

At the grassroots level, supporters of Chrétien and Martin have begun to battle one another for positions on the executives of local riding associations. Their aim is to influence the selection of delegates to a leadership convention, if and when it is held. And at the annual general meeting of the Ontario Young Liberals last month, Chrétien supporters ran a slate for the 18 executive positions against a rival group of young aides from the Peterson government—many of them sympathetic to Martin. The Chrétien supporters took the majority of the posts and they now claim to control the youth wing in Ontario.

Despite those efforts, many Liberals remain unenthusiastic about both men. Martin is widely viewed as a political neophyte, while Chrétien is regarded by many as a symbol of the past. As a result, some Liberals say that they are still searching for a candidate who can project new ideas. “There is a real problem in jumping on a bandwagon,” said Seymour Iseman, a former president of the party’s Ontario wing. Iseman said that he has not committed himself to a leadership contender, adding: “I think the Liberal party has a serious problem. We have to assess where we want to take the country.” Among others who might throw their hats in the ring: Premier Joe Ghiz of Prince Edward Island, Quebec party wing president Francis Fox, Toronto MP Dennis Mills and Hamilton MP Sheila Copps.

For now, Turner is remaining silent on his plans for the future. A senior caucus member who publicly professes loyalty to the leader told Maclean ’s that he believes Turner, in his heart, would like to remain as leader. But he added: “Sometime before the summer, I expect that John will place a series of telephone calls to his friends and advisers and ask them what he should do. When he does, I and everyone else I know are going to tell him to step down. He has had two chances and that is more than anyone has the right to expect.” If Turner chooses to follow that advice, there will be no shortage of contenders willing to commit time and money to the struggle to take his place.