CANADA

Giving up the reins

John Turner steps down as opposition leader

E. KAYE FULTON February 19 1990
CANADA

Giving up the reins

John Turner steps down as opposition leader

E. KAYE FULTON February 19 1990

Giving up the reins

John Turner steps down as opposition leader

CANADA

It was the kind of dinner that John Turner enjoys most: a rare sirloin steak and his favorite dry Chardonnay wine, consumed in the company of trusted friends in the luxury of a private club. Even the purpose of the evening last Tuesday appealed to the taste of the Liberal leader. Mustering the little political power left to him in the waning days of an awkward leadership, Turner

waning days an was a congenial host with a few remaining favors to bestow. For Windsor MP Herbert Gray, the gift was Turner’s job as opposition leader; for Ottawa-Vanier MP and party whip Jean-Robert Gauthier, a promotion to Liberal House leader. Relieved and pleased with himself, Turner ordered Monte Cristo cigars for the table. At 10:10 the next morning, four hours before officially exchanging seats with Gray in the House of Commons,

Turner told the Liberal MPs and senators at the party’s weekly caucus meeting that he was resigning as opposition leader. Said Toronto MP Jim Peterson, a longtime Turner supporter: “He showed a lot of class stepping down now.”

With five months left before a successor is elected at the Liberal leadership convention in Calgary, Turner’s decision to hasten the inevitable was prudent politics that will permit the six candidates for his job to take positions opposed to his own with a minimum of embarrassment. But it was also practical personal business. Although the

personal Although former Bay Street lawyer told reporters that he will stay on as party leader until the June leadership convention and retain his Vancouver Quadra seat at least until then, Turner plans to leave Ottawa next month to join Miller Thomson, a Toronto law firm of 60 lawyers. Last week, spokesmen for Miller Thomson said that they hoped to capitalize on Turner’s licences to practise law in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and England, as well as his widespread network of contacts, to help the firm expand. But, in spite of Turner’s claim that he received “a number of very interesting offers from across the country,” party insiders say that it took a concerted search by privatesector loyalists to drum up a job for the 60year-old former prime minister.

In fact, larger law firms such as Turner’s former employers, Toronto-based McMillan Binch and Montreal’s Stikeman Elliott, declined entreaties on his behalf or ignored his availability. The reason, Bay Street insiders say, is that many people in those firms are still privately smarting from the Liberal leader’s

impassioned crusade against the supporters of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement during the 1988 federal election. But Miller Thomson spokesmen denied that Turner’s notoriety among Canadian businessmen because of his anti-FTA stance would be detrimental to the company. Said Lawrence Bertuzzi, chairman of Miller Thomson’s executive committee: “Lawyers have stands on all kinds of

issues, and clients don’t hold it against them.”

Neither Turner nor his new employers would reveal how much he will be paid. But Turner clearly expects to live comfortably. In Toronto, he and his wife, Geills, will occupy a three-storey, $1.7-million brick house in the exclusive enclave of Forest Hill. The couple bought the seven-bedroom house last November with a $175,000 down payment—but must make monthly payments of $15,724 on it.

Still, while Turner has apparently landed on his feet, his party continues to struggle with its own financial woes. A leadership campaign in 1984 and two disastrous federal elections left the party $6 million in debt. Said Liberal party chief financial officer Michael Robinson, who is also campaign chairman for leadership candidate Paul Martin: “No one worked harder than John Turner to bring the debt down.” Despite those efforts, however, the Liberals continue to owe $4 million.

The Liberal leader also leaves a party at the crossroads in terms of its policy. Committed to

the Meech Lake accord, Turner had faced the political embarrassment of seeing three of the six Liberals vying to succeed him as leader— including Jean Chrétien—oppose the Conservative government’s constitutional initiative. At the same time, the party is struggling to stake out clear positions on defence, the economy and other issues. Still, Turner’s supporters laud his efforts to broaden the party’s membership. And close colleagues confirm that his sixyear tenure as leader, during which he endured the humiliation of at least three attempts by disaffected Liberals to force him out of his job, was taxing. “He has been through hell as leader in an environment where loyalty means nothing,” said David Scott, an Ottawa lawyer and backroom Liberal. “If you can’t command loyalty, you can’t lead.” Added Scott, a personal

friend of Turner: “He is disappointed that he didn’t leave the mark he wanted on history. But John Turner is an old-fashioned Catholic. He knows you never get your reward here.” Reflecting on more than two decades in politics, Turner said last week that his only legacy was a demonstrated ability “to endure defeat and rebuild a party.” That was far from the prime ministerial dream that eluded him for all but 79 days in 1984. But last week, Turner’s caucus gave him a fitting gift at a warm farewell ceremony. His fellow MPs presented Turner with his chair from the House of Commons, freshly stripped, reupholstered and adorned with a bronze plaque bearing his name. His caucus broke out into a spontaneous rendition of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. But, by then, Turner had already left the room—a sign, perhaps, of just how eager Canada’s 17th prime minister already was to put the world of politics behind him.

E. KAYE FULTON

LISA VAN DUSEN