When John turner became the new Liberal Leader there was a very strong sense of change in the air in Canada. It wasn’t just the Liberal party that was looking to renew itself, the Progressive Conservatives had done that very thing by electing a promising, charismatic newcomer to the political scene, Brian Mulroney.
It wasn’t until I neared the age of 16 that I witnessed my first major changing of the guard in Ottawa. With the exception a brief interregnum when Joe Clark seized control the same machine that guided Liberal governments in the 1970’s was there into the mid 80’s.
Pierre Trudeau had essentially been Prime Minister since before I was born.
People forget that by 1984 Canadians had grown quite tired of Pierre Trudeau. While his legacy now shines for repatriating the constitution and putting the nation on a progressive path, thanks in part to inspiring activist movements of the 60s and 70s, there were big dark clouds that hung over Trudeau and his government. Relations with the western provinces were horrible thanks to the National Energy Program, and Quebeckers were in full on separation mode thanks to work left undone in signing on the province to the Charter of Rights. The arrogance of the elder Trudeau had highlighted by growing deficits, crony patronage appointments, and a lavish farewell world ego tour (minus cultural costumes his son would later show up in) to promote peace in the waning days of the cold war.
A walk in a snow storm convinced Pierre Trudeau to retire from his position, a whiteout, perhaps, that was a metaphor for an empty slate of ideas left to run on.
John Turner, the Prince in waiting, had all the qualities to become a long reigning Canadian Prime Minister: Rich, smart and well-educated, athletic, handsome, bilingual, connected, and well experienced in powerful cabinet positions.
Timing was Turner’s worst enemy, however.
He couldn’t brush off the reek of arrogance left from 16 years of Liberal rule, and faced formidable opponents not just in Brian Mulroney, but also Jean Chretien, who, when running for the leadership against Turner in 1984, used the slogan, “call for a man from Main Street, not Bay Street.” The Turner vs. Chretien struggle was a carry over from the Trudeau vs. Turner fight that had brewed since the latter’s resignation from cabinet several years prior. This inner party challenge would play out among future Liberal leaders and wannabe leaders.
Patting the bum of Liberal Party President Iona Campagnolo during the 1984 election might be regarded as Canada’s first #MeToo moment that may not have sunk him were he a 1960’s cabinet minister. It did him no favours in the mid 80’s and will remain part of his ugly legacy, and among one of the many reasons which resulted in a rump of 40 or so Liberal MPs in the House of Commons.
The Free Trade debate and the passions it unleashed in John Turner may be his most enduring legacy of his leadership. But again, timing was his biggest enemy when he fought hard against Mulroney while at the same time having knives stuck in his back from the dissent in his own party.
Turner was able to oversee a doubling of the Liberal caucus following the 1988 convention he might have been able to carry on were it not for the ongoing sniping and sideline maneuvers from power hungry Jean Chretien. It became too much for Turner and he resigned from politics in 1990. Eight years of Chretien rule would send Turner deep into private life and declining health. While the testimonials are full of praise for a gentleman who devoted much to the importance of public life, he as much a victim of political skullduggery and dirty politics from within his own party.
It is interesting to see that in the recollections of the life lead by John Turner the strongest voice comes from his biggest foe, Brian Mulroney.
Often said was the line that Robert Stanfield was the greatest Prime Minister Canada never had. Perhaps that’s true of an older generation, but from my vantage point John Turner was the greatest Prime Minister who never really got the chance.