Several years ago, I found myself standing beside John Turner outside a Toronto church after a Christmas concert. He was alone and nobody was paying attention to him. It seemed strangely anonymous for a man who’d been prime minister, not to mention a one-time golden boy of Liberal politics.
Then again, Turner was a guy whose political success turned to ashes.
When he became prime minister in 1984, Liberals had high hopes that he’d rescue the party from the looming obliteration bequeathed by the departing Pierre Trudeau. But he served for only 79 days before exiting on the heels of an epic electoral drubbing.
Turner was once perceived as the upcoming “Canadian Kennedy.” He was young, athletic and handsome (in a 1950s leading man kind of way). And after he was first elected to Parliament in 1962, progress was sufficiently prompt that he found himself in cabinet by December 1965. Apparently, the sky was the limit.
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Then Pierre Trudeau happened.
Political fashion suddenly changed. Rather than yearning for its own version of John F. Kennedy, Canada did one of those see-you-and-raise-you things, giddily choosing the intellectual, swinging bachelor from Quebec.
It was, after all, the 1960s!
That notwithstanding, the smart money held that Turner still had big prospects, albeit not immediate ones. So he did his duty, serving Trudeau in the high-profile Justice and Finance portfolios for seven years.
However, the two men didn’t really gel. Their personal styles were different, as were their ideological dispositions. And there was always the implicit rivalry, the knowledge that Turner’s ambition could only be satisfied by Trudeau’s departure.
Eventually, Turner had enough. Feeling unappreciated, he resigned in September 1975 to pursue a lucrative law career in Toronto. And, of course, to wait things out as the crown prince in exile.
But when the Liberals briefly lost power in 1979 and Trudeau announced his intention to retire, Turner opted not to run for the leadership. Perhaps life on Bay Street was too good or maybe the prospect of being leader of the opposition wasn’t sufficiently enticing. In any event, it all became moot when the Conservative government fell and Trudeau returned to power in the ensuing election.
Opportunity, however, came again. From mid-1982 through February 1984, the Liberals lagged well behind the Conservatives in the polls – sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points. Although Trudeau wanted to stay on, it was clear to everyone that the electoral implications would be dire. So, at the end of February 1984, he announced his impending retirement.
This time, the crown prince didn’t flinch from the challenge. Turner was formally in the race by March 16 and by the end of the month the Liberals were back in the lead in the polls. The saviour was on his way. Salvation was at hand.
Mind you, there were early danger signs. Under scrutiny during the leadership race, Turner in the flesh didn’t seem as dynamic or compelling as he had in the imagination. And instead of a first-ballot coronation, he was pushed to a second, winning with 54 per cent of the vote.
Still, Liberals were optimistic when he took office as prime minister on June 30, 1984. And when he called an election for early September, the pre-writ Gallup poll had them leading by a comfortable nine points.
The campaign, however, was an unqualified disaster. On the nightly television news clips, Turner had a halting, uneasy quality. And his penchant for patting female posteriors on camera struck a discordant note.
There was also the matter of the poisoned chalice.
On his way out the door, Trudeau made a slew of patronage appointments, to which Turner added some of his own. To many, this was a perfect example of Liberal excess, even corruption.
Confronted about it during the televised leaders’ debate, Turner’s response was that he “had no option.”
When the ballots were counted, the Liberals were reduced to 40 seats and 28 per cent of the vote. It was their worst performance up to that point.
Turner hung around to fight another losing election in 1988. Sometimes fate comes down hard on the blessed.
John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister, died on Saturday at 91.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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