, 09.22.2020 07:15 AM

My latest in The Spectator: John Turner, RIP

Back then, I worked for John Turner’s Liberal government and my then-girlfriend worked for Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives.

On the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1984, I was heading home to Calgary and law school. So I went to the Ottawa polling station where she was volunteering.

She was sad to see me go (I guess), but happy about what was happening: her party was winning and mine was losing. We said our goodbyes and I headed to the airport.

In those days, there was no Wi-Fi on planes, because there was no Wi-Fi. There wasn’t even an internet. So when you got on a plane, you didn’t know what was happening down on Earth.

Down on Earth, Mulroney was heading toward one of the biggest parliamentary victories in Canadian history. When all the votes were counted, his Progressive Conservatives won 211 of 284 seats in the House of Commons.

The Liberals, formerly a majority government, would go from 135 seats to 40. It was the worst election result for a sitting government in Canadian history to that point.

I’d been supporting Turner for a couple years — he got to me before Jean Chrétien did, basically. He died on Saturday at age 91.

My Dad picked me up at the airport. I was happy to see him and happy to be back in Calgary. But we were quiet as we drove home, listening to the election coverage on the radio.

As we pulled into my parents’ northwest Calgary driveway, Turner came on the radio. He had won his seat in Vancouver Quadra, but his party had been decimated.

This was the moment that comes in every campaign, when all your work, ideas, emotion and hopes and dreams are decided by someone else.

And it was all over, just like that. So I can’t remember everything he said.

But I do remember this. As my Dad and I sat in the driveway, listening to him, Turner said: “The people are always right.”

I cried a bit when I heard him say that.

That moment is when you see political leaders for who they really are. There are no more rallies, no more speeches, no more votes to count. It’s over. And you get to see them for who they really are, even if for the most fleeting of moments.

And that’s what we heard. Turner was a democrat who believed deeply — in his soul — in the judgment and the wisdom of the people. That’s mostly what characterized his time in public life, too: a belief that the people’s will was inviolate.

That was the paradox of John Turner: he believed in that old-fashioned notion that the people knew best. They don’t always, of course: witnessing the foul, fetid Donald Trump era from afar, we know by now that the people aren’t always right. The people are often terribly, terribly wrong.

But Turner forever considered that to be an article of faith, a truth that deserved defending. It reflected the dignity he showed on election night in 1984 and it was seen in all that followed — when his caucus worked to jettison him and he seemed almost perpetually bewildered by their inability to accept a democratic vote.

Was he a man out of time?

Perhaps. That’s why he lost, some say: he clung to a long-ago, long-abandoned Canada, where there were no negative ads, no personal attacks, no Twitter. He left in the 1970s, when politics was about service and solemnity. And he returned in the 1980s, when politics was no longer about either.

Politics had changed. He hadn’t. He didn’t.

The last time I saw him, I introduced him at a 2015 Liberal event in Oshawa where I had asked him to speak. He was in a wheelchair and much older. He was handsome, but no longer as handsome as he had been, and a bit frail.

He listened as I told the story of that night, when he said the people were always right.

Later, after he spoke in support of the Oshawa Liberal candidate, he pulled me closer. “You remember what I said that night, eh?”

I told him I did.

He patted me on the arm. “Good,” he said. “Good.”

And then he had this faraway look, remembering what could have been — and what was.

[Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.]

17 Comments

  1. PhilinLondon says:

    While I never had the opportunity to know the man like Warren did, I always admired him. He may well have been a man that re-entered politics at the wrong time.

    Gotcha politics propelled Mulroney past Joe Clark and later John Turner.

    The street fighter from Shawinigan adapted well. Whether you like or hate Mulroney or Chrétien, together the dynamics of our Dominion pivoted under their watch.

    I Wonder what our country would look like today if parliamentarians like Turner, Stanfield, Broadbent had found a way to adapt From the days of Pearson, Diefenbacher, and Douglas without The deeper partisanship that prevails today.

    I remember John Turner being interviewed as Reform was building momentum and he remained adamant that the Liberal party of his predecessors were Canada’s first reform movement and original reform Party.

    I don’t think that kind of change occurs today because unlike what John Turner felt in his day – The people are NOT always right. They may rarely be right. Trump is a symptom of what ails the people. Another is the scarcity of true leadership in any party north or south of the 49th.

    Thankfully I do believe most parliamentarians in all parties are much closer to the Turner ideals then our neighbours who simply cannot campaign without division.

    Obama once told Trudeau that the world needed more Canada. I believe Canada needs more John Turner. That composure would be something we could be proud to export to the world. John was the kind of guy who could have worn the nice suit and socks and got people on the world stage talking about the stylish Canadian. But the talk would have been because of what made up the person under the suit.

  2. Ron says:

    I’m really splitting hairs here I realize, but there was an internet in 1984. It was just mostly exclusive to universities and government agencies. 🙂

  3. Steve T says:

    Good words indeed – and a good man lost.

    You could take almost any politician from pre-1990, and they would have more class, dignity, and integrity than the entire current Parliament. Serving with honor, and attacking ideas rather than people, seem to be considered outdated and quaint notions now. It is quite sad.

  4. Mark says:

    Turner was a democrat and the personification of what politicians should aspire to. He will be missed. He was the exact same age as my dear late dad, and that makes him even better.

  5. Douglas W says:

    Turner was a Blue Liberal in the tradition of CD Howe, Walter Harris, Edgar Benson, Mitchell Sharp, Donald S. Macdonald, and John Manley.

    There are no Blue Liberals in Justin Trudeau’s current cabinet.

    This is why this country is in big, big trouble.

  6. If you actually do believe in democracy, you have to accept that sometimes the voters will elect someone you don’t like. It’s like the legal system; I have heard it said repeatedly that it is better that any number of guilty people go free than an innocent person be convicted. If you actually subscribe to that belief, then you can’t complain about it when someone who is guilty is acquitted. Let’s not throw the baby out with bath water folks. As Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all of the others. With respect to the 1984 federal election, people were ready for a change. They were sick and tired of Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals. Let’s not forget who it was that brought in the NEP, which alienated Western Canada. Mr. Turner had an uphill battle, but he lost the election (IMHO) when he couldn’t answer Mr. Mulroney during their debate about all of the patronage appointments Prime Minister Trudeau made before he went out the door. Brian Mulroney had the advantage of not having a political past that he could be challenged on (not unlike Doug Ford in 2018). It was too bad for Mr. Turner, but in politics, as in life, timing is important. Mr. Chretien certainly has that advantage.

  7. The Doctor says:

    The longish piece on Turner by Hugh Windsor in yesterday’s Globe & Mail is an interesting read. It really brings out what an incredibly gifted guy Turner was: athlete, scholar etc. And it does a good, fair job of charting and explaining the ups and downs in Turner’s life.

    One impression it left with me was that the Liberal Party circa 1968-1984 only had room for one superstar, sort of like the old saying about there only being room for one sheriff in town. Turner and PET just couldn’t both be there at the same time.

  8. Tod Cowen says:

    I’m struck by the picture of PMJT and Turner at the latter’s 90th birthday, the one where Turner is head-to-head with Justin. There’s clear affection, and I’m sure that’s coupled with a strong desire to see Justin succeed. But think about that for a moment: Justin had become PM with far less experience (or ability) than Turner, riding the second wave of Trudeaumania, to say nothing of Justin’s being the son of Turner’s bitterest rival. How often do we see generosity of spirit like that?

    I had a cup of coffee on the Turner leadership campaign in 1984, and a second cup with the Dukakis campaign in 88. (Although I still have my Turner 88 button somewhere.) Both had a deep and sincere commitment to public service and citizenship, as well as a fundamental decency. Sure could use that now.

  9. Gilbert says:

    I always thought John Turner was uncomfortable serving under Pierre Trudeau. The two men were very different. Pierre Trudeau was much more to the left.

    It surprised me that John Turner was against the free trade agreement with the USA. I thought it was good for Canada, but many Canadians agreed with him.

    • The Doctor says:

      I think there will always be a big chunk of people who really wonder how bona fide Turner’s opposition to the FTA was. After all, the Liberal Party itself did a complete 180 degree turn on the issue over the ensuing 5 years.

      I think part of Turner’s opposition was purely reactionary and situational: the Liberal Party was in opposition, the job of the opposition is to oppose etc. Plus a lot of rank and file Liberals, especially the Trudeauites, were to the left of Turner. Think what would have happened if he would have said “yep, I agree with Mulroney on this.” There would have been absolute civil war in the Liberal Party, and the NDP would have presumably grabbed the votes of all the anti-free traders (and there were quite a few of those).

    • The Liberals had long been the party of free trade. As it became clear under Chrétien, they only opposed it to be different then the Conservatives.

    • Steve T says:

      Furthering the points made above, the FTA was my first realization that opposition parties will blindly oppose things even if they are good ideas. In other words, it was my first disillusionment with democracy.

      I continue to believe this is one of the key flaws in a parliamentary system. MPs are basically trained monkeys who follow whatever the party says. For all the flaws of the U.S. system, at least their congresspeople and senators can vote how they see fit. I wonder if the FTA would have consumed as much energy as it did, if MPs had been free to vote as they saw fit.

  10. Jason Dale says:

    Simply want to compliment Warren for the truly insightful and sublime writing in this tribute to Mr. Turner and the earlier one for “Madame.” As a high school English and Civics teacher in this great nation of ours for two-plus decades , I appreciate your skills in regard to both of my passions. Thank you, Warren.

  11. Tod Cowen says:

    Canadians definitely saw a difference between Turner and Trudeau the Elder, and during the leadership campaign the media referenced their rivalry. Remember the off-the-record, back-of-the-plane session when Turner gave his account of their last meeting (and then saw it reported in the Globe?) That was a fun day at Bay & College.

    What if Turner had criticized the appointments when they were made by Trudeau, and then tried to govern with a minority? Prorogue Parliament, open with a great Throne Speech? Get defeated, and go to the country? Was Mulroney popular enough to win that election? Probably, but it would have avoided the electoral wipe-out. Ancient history, of course.

  12. Mark D says:

    Thank-you Warren. I volunteered for Turner’s campaign when I was young. He was a good man. There is so much I want to say, but you said it better. Thank-you for speaking for all of us who will miss his principled goodness.

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