THE IMPENDING RACE TO SUCCEED JOHN TURNER MAY ONLY INTENSIFY DIVISIONS WITHIN LIBERAL RANKS
A winking, teasing Jean Chrétien clearly revelled in the spotlight. Attending a teachers’ convention in the Ontario resort town of Collingwood last week, Chrétien delivered his standard speech mixing self-deprecating anecdotes with unbridled patriotism. But he was coy when reporters asked about his intentions to try to succeed John Turner, who last week announced his retirement as the ninth leader of the federal Liberal party. “There is no race yet,” said a smiling Chrétien. But in the oftenbrutal back rooms of the Liberal party, the former federal justice minister has already started to intensify his campaign. One indication came just days before Turner said that he would resign the party leadership when Chrétien conveyed a tough message in private to a potential rival. Through mutual friends, Chrétien—the clear favorite at this time to succeed Turner—told Clifford Lincoln, a former Quebec cabinet minister and a dark-horse candidate for the federal leadership, “not to waste his time even thinking about running.” Chrétien, Lincoln was told, had a lock on the job.
Chrétien’s attempt to dissuade other candidates from entering the race—and the success of his rivals last week in delaying a leadership convention—is characteristic of the Liberals’ current internal machinations. But with Turner’s announced intention to resign, the campaign to succeed him is about to become public. Initially, most of Turner’s potential heirs tiptoed carefully around speculation that they would seek the job. Instead, they lavished praise on Turner, 59, for his years of public service. For his part, Turner told reporters: “I came in when the party was on the way down. I’m leaving when the party is on the way up.” But the tributes could not mask the failures of Turner’s five years at the Liberal helm. He leaves a party badly in debt and deeply divided
over most issues, particularly his controversial support for the Meech Lake constitutional accord. And even with Turner gone, those Liberals who are eager to embark on a leadership race may discover that the campaign will only intensify the divisions—not heal them.
Turner’s resignation was surprising only in the details of its timing. Friends said that he made up his mind to quit four months ago, but held off the announcement in order to delay a leadership convention for as long as possible. By doing so, Turner hoped to give other candidates time to mount campaigns that might defeat Chrétien, his bitter rival. Said one Turner friend: “He is blindly obsessed with denying the leadership to Chrétien.” Indeed, Chrétien’s status as current favorite is unquestioned within the party. Said Senator Leo Kolber of Montreal, a key party fund raiser: “If a convention were held tomorrow, Chrétien would win it in a walk.”
But, uncomfortably for Chrétien, the party’s ruling management committee left the timing of the convention in the air last week—until a meeting of the full, 64-member executive in mid-June. Meanwhile, plans continued for a party convention scheduled to be held in October in Calgary. Turner’s personal timetable was restricted by the impending review of his leadership at Calgary, dictated by party rules. Despite attempts by Turner’s office to delay the delegate selection process for several weeks, some ridings announced plans to begin choosing delegates to the convention by May 15. That meant that Turner had to either resign or face the embarrassing prospect of presiding, as leader, over the selection of convention delegates opposed to his leadership.
As a result, on May 3, he sent a oneparagraph letter by facsimile machine to party president Michel Robert in Montreal, stating his intention to resign as leader as soon as a
date is set for a leadership convention. At an emotional caucus meeting on the same day, Turner informed Liberal MPs and senators of his decision. Before leaving, he paused to shake hands with Senator Pietro Rizzuto, one of his most vociferous internal critics. He then crossed Ottawa’s Wellington Street to the National Press Theatre, where he made his letter public.
With that, Turner closed the door on a political career that began in 1962 with soaring promise and ended amid shattered dreams and disillusionment. His political ascendancy in the 1960s and 1970s was carefully mapped by a phalanx of ambitious advisers, who spotted great potential in Turner’s intelligence and good looks. His mother, Phyllis Ross, a senior federal civil servant, had imbued him with a sense of dedication to public service. Turner’s education—private schools, University of British Columbia, a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, the Sorbonne—was tailored for that life. “He was extremely magnetic and almost brilliant,” recalled Fraser Elliott, who hired Turner into the Montreal law firm Stikeman Elliott in 1954. “He was a Pied Piper who attracted people with his dynamism.”
Impressing Liberals in the heady debates of the party’s 1960 Kingston policy conference, Turner fit the new political mould of youth and reform made fashionable by U.S. President John Kennedy. “His campaign was infused with a coterie of pretty girls and bright young lawyers, who were all determined to make him prime minister,” said Egan Chambers, the former Tory MP whom Turner defeated in the Montreal riding of St. Lawrence-St. George in the 1962 and 1963 federal elections.
After three years in Lester Pearson’s cabinet—in 1967, he became the first federal minister of consumer and corporate affairs—Turner made an audacious run for the party’s leadership in 1968.
He finished third to Pierre Trudeau. But his 195 delegate votes on the final ballot—commonly known as “the 195 Club”—came to symbolize the group of Turner loyalists within the party. Well into the Pierre Trudeau years, they still called themselves the 195 Club.
In three Trudeau governments, Turner held the senior cabinet portfolios of justice and finance, presiding over the introduction of such major Trudeau-inspired legislation as official bilingualism, abortion reform and a law legalizing private acts between consenting adults. As
well, Turner developed a reputation for improving the calibre of judges appointed to the bench. And while he was finance minister he also served as chairman of the International Monetary Fund’s committee on economic policy. But during the early 1970s, he came to represent the antithesis to the Trudeau-ites’ free-spending, interventionist governing style and he became increasingly out of sorts in private about his role in the government. Trudeau offered Turner a Senate seat or a judgeship when he quit cabinet in September, 1975. But after staying on for four months as an ordinary MP, Turner joined the Toronto law firm of McMillan Binch, where he—and the 195 Club—nurtured his role as the custodian of the anti-Trudeau wing of the Liberal party.
But the period away from active politics was a costly one. Friends remarked that his populist connections were undone during the years on Bay Street. “He was in the cocoon of corporate
adulation for so long that he lost touch,” said his 1984 campaign director, William Lee, who had a bitter fallingout with his boss. “His world became walking into boardrooms with a big cigar, fourletter words and a macho pose.” But others argue that such a characterization is superficial. “His habit of perpetuating his image as a jock did Turner a great disservice,” said John deB. Payne, a Montreal consultant who has advised Turner since the early 1960s. “It masks his fine mind.”
Still, it will be Turner’s failures as Liberal leader—not his early successes—that will likely weigh most upon how historians assess his career. Turner re-entered politics at a time when the Liberal party was spiritually and organizationally bankrupt. Said Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Noranda Forest Inc. and a longtime Turner friend: “Turner inherited a shell of a party—a party that had been sucked dry by the Trudeaus of this world.” Turner was aware of the heavy odds against the Liberals winning the 1984 election. Private polls taken in 1983 showed that he was unlikely to beat the Tories under Brian Mul-
roney. Still, he chose to return to politics and beat Chrétien and five other contenders at the June, 1984, leadership convention in Ottawa. But even then, his political friends acknowledged that the new leader’s awkward public demeanor—accentuated by staccato throatclearing—was a severe political liability.
Over the next few years, Turner worked
hard with media consultants to improve his speaking style and public image. But,weakened by his crushing loss in the September, 1984, election, when Mulroney’s Conservatives won 211 seats to the Liberals’ 40, he was never
again able to assert control over the party. Much of the sniping came from Chrétien supporters who never accepted Turner’s leadership. “Turner was a team player in a party where everyone wanted to be captain,” said James Robb, a Montreal lawyer and longtime Turner activist. Added Douglas Richardson, Turner’s principal secretary from 1985 to 1987:
“Turner was fair-minded, and a compromiser who was the best person to lead the party through a rebuilding period.”
But for Turner, whose election as leader was based almost solely on the perception that he was a winner, the second loss to Mulroney last November was the final blow. Although he claimed last week to have rebuilt the party, his resignation is likely to spark renewed debate over many of his initiatives, including his support for the “distinct society” provision of the Meech Lake accord and his unflinching opposition to the Canada-U.S.
Free Trade Agreement. Said David MacNaughton, a Liberal consultant and a possible candidate for the party presidency: “The party has been wandering the wilderness on issues and we need a debate in the next little while before we choose a leader.”
But few Liberals appear to be overwhelmingly happy with the current crop of leadership hopefuls. Said former Liberal MP Douglas Frith, himself
a Chrétien supporter: “Chrétien will have to prove that in the three years he has been in private life he has broadened his policy horizons and mended some of the rifts from the last campaign.” Reaction to other challengers, including Montreal businessman and rookie MP Paul Martin Jr., Winnipeg MP Lloyd Axworthy and Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, remains lukewarm. Said Frith: “There is no White Knight out there just waiting to be drafted.”
But the potential leadership candidates wasted little time in drawing the battle lines for the impending race. Within hours of Turner’s resignation, Chrétien supporters began lobbying the 64 members of the party’s national executive to cancel the Calgary policy meeting in favor of an early leadership convention. But after the 13-member management committee opted to proceed with preparations for Calgary, Linda Sorenson, president of the Liberal party’s national women’s commission, said, “The feeling was that we didn’t need to panic and rush into things. ”
Still, the final decision on whether to hold the three-day meeting in Calgary will be made by the full executive at a meeting scheduled for June 17. Most executive members agreed that it will be difficult to convince western members
to cancel the Calgary meeting. But representatives of the various leadership camps quickly began negotiations for a compromise date for the leadership convention. Chrétien backers are eager to have the leadership vote at the
earliest possible date, while supporters of lesser-known candidates—who require time to heighten their profiles—prefer to wait until late 1990.
One deterrent to holding the Calgary convention is the party’s lingering debt, now at least $4.3 million. When Turner assumed control of the party, it stood at $3.5 million, rising to over $6 million by 1988. Although Turner predicted last week that the debt would be
whittled down to about $3
million by the end of the year, some provincial party officials said privately that they were having trouble raising money with Turner still at the helm.
And other Liberals said that they feared the leadership race will be dominated by debate over the Meech Lake accord, which has profoundly divided the party. In fact, many Liberals want the party to avert a leadership campaign until after June,
1990, by which time the accord must be ratified by both
Manitoba and New Brunswick—the last holdout provinces—or it will die. Said Rosemary McCarney of Toronto, a national vice-president of the party executive: “The provinces should decide the fate of Meech Lake. The
federal party should not be saddling any new leader with the issue.” Added New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna: “It is a most vexing and divisive issue for Liberals. The federal party would be wise to wait until that issue is resolved before they get into their leadership.”
But others disagreed. “What makes the Liberal party fun is that it does not consist of a bunch of trained seals who stand up and spout a single party line,” said Michael Robinson, the party’s chief financial officer and a Martin backer. “This party needs to have a thorough debate about the fundamental direction it wants to take in the future.”
Indeed, as Liberals rushed to set a blueprint for the party’s future, few were eager to reflect on the internecine struggles of the Turner era. “Because he never won a federal election, he will be remembered as a transitional leader,” said former Montreal MP Serge Joyal. But others who believed that Turner compromised his political beliefs in the final campaign
against free trade were harsher in their assessment. Said Lee: “For those of us who remember the old John Turner, the politician who abhorred the veiled anti-Americanism of the Trudeau Liberals, we wish he were going out standing up for what we know he believed in.” But many Canadians may choose to remember John Turner’s last campaign. In severe pain from a pinched nerve in his back and embattled from within his party, Turner still mounted a
personal crusade that rekindled images of his glory years. Said his old friend Payne: “People will remember that he did everything with such dignity under great personal pressures.” As a politician whose distinguished career threatened to be obscured by the trials of the past five years, John Turner may have to console himself with that sympathetic epitaph,
LISA VAN DUSEN