John Turner, in the spotlight once more

Now 82 and out of public life since 1989, he gets his due in a new biography

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There is a saying in politics that honour is due. In John Turner's case, it is long overdue.

Finally, Turner's life and career in politics receive appropriate recognition in Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner (UBC Press), a biography by Carleton University historian Paul Litt that is one of the best Canadian political books of the year.

It captures all the qualities, as well as the faults, of Turner. His brief season as prime minister, his wilderness years as opposition leader, and what he called the fight of his life against free trade don't end very well. But what comes across in all the chapters of his life is his sense that politics is an honourable calling. At the end of the story, as he leaves public life in 1989, there is a sense that his honour is not only undiminished, but very much enhanced.

Two guys who don't come out of this book looking particularly good are his predecessor as Liberal leader, Pierre Trudeau, and his successor, Jean Chrétien. They constantly undermined his leadership and in the end helped destroy it. Litt has the goods on them both, and the portraits of self-absorption (in Trudeau's case) and disloyalty (in Chrétien's) are quite damaging. Then again, the two were successful and long-serving prime ministers, while Turner was not.

Far from providing a smooth transition, Trudeau forced Turner to make a raft of patronage appointments that proved to be his undoing during the ensuing 1984 campaign. "There isn't a Grit left in town," said Conservative leader Brian Mulroney, smelling blood on the day the writ dropped. "They've all gone to Grit heaven."

Which led to the defining moment of the campaign, the exchange in the leaders' debate in which Turner lamely said of the appointments: "I had no option."

"You had an option, sir," Mulroney retorted. "You could have said; 'I'm not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada and I'm not asking Canadians to pay the price.' You had an option, sir, to say no."

"I had no option," Turner repeated.

"That is an avowal of failure," Mulroney shot back. "That is a confession of nonleadership, and this country needs leadership. You had an option, sir. You could have done better."

After that the bottom fell out of the Liberal campaign. Mulroney won the biggest landslide in Canadian history, while Turner led the Liberals to their worst showing ever up to then, with 28 per cent of the vote and only 40 seats.

Which left Turner in opposition, the last place he expected to find himself, constantly watching his back from the Chrétien crowd scheming for his job.

Litt captures all the drama and intrigue of the 1988 election, which Turner transformed into a referendum on free trade. But not before he had to survive a putsch mounted by the Liberal Party's senior advisers, who tried to persuade him that he should resign in the middle of the campaign, with Chrétien coming in as his replacement. Even worse than the would-be coup, Peter Mansbridge got wind of it and broke the story on CBC News.

Somehow, Turner pulled himself together for the debates the following week, and in the English debate he scored heavily when he told Mulroney: "I believe you have sold us out."

Turner tapped into a deepseated emotional insecurity in Canadians about the United States. He had found his voice, and his cause. This time it was the Tory numbers that tanked overnight.

At a lunch and book-signing in Toronto last week, I said to Turner: "I was on the other team. You scared the hell out of us."

He forced Mulroney to raise his game by abandoning a safe and scripted campaign and going for broke in the last four weeks.

As Mulroney himself put it: "He's got the momentum; now we're going to find out what we're made of."

It was the most exciting campaign of the modern era, and the most consequential.

That Turner lost, partly because of what Litt terms the Liberals' failure to close ranks behind him, does him no discredit. The first part of Turner's biography, on his early years and his terms as justice and finance minister, has a much happier ending.

Once an Olympic sprinter and the fastest man in Canada, Turner, now 82, has been much slowed by physical ailments. But his mind and wit are still sharp.

And he's clearly enjoying his season in the literary spotlight. If I had to recommend one political book for Christmas, this would be it, the highly readable biography of John Napier Turner, truly a right honourable gentleman.

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