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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Right Man at the Wrong Time

The career of Canada's 17th Prime Minister demonstrates that in politics, as in comedy and sex, timing is everything:

John Turner turns 80 tomorrow, and he's 25 years removed from his very brief stint as prime minister, the role for which he had prepared all his life. Yet the guy sitting in his cramped, cluttered 58th-floor Toronto law office refuses to dwell on the past, to grow old irrelevantly, to accept himself as the footnote that politics' all-or-nothing judges have made him out to be.

“That doesn't bother me,” he says in the trademark clipped, gravelly tones that once seemed so uninspiring and unpersuasive next to Brian Mulroney's winning oratorical tricks. “I didn't go into this for the history, I went in to serve. And, frankly, let history take care of itself.”

The old legend of Napoleon asking, before he granted a marshal's baton, whether one of his commanders was lucky, applies well to Turner's awful political luck.  His one serious chance of winning a mandate was missed in 1979, when Joe Clark's minority government unexpectedly collapsed, giving Pierre Trudeau his Lazarus moment.  With it he imposed the NEP and the Charter.  Less well known, or understood, is the missed opportunity Canada had in having John Turner as Prime Minister.  He was not, by any stretch, a conservative or libertarian, but he represented the Liberal Party's blue wing in his youth.  In 1968 Turner ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party, finishing a distant third.  The sepia memories of Liberal boomers aside, Trudeau won narrowly on the fourth ballot.  

The party's right was split three ways between Robert Winters, Paul Hellyer and John Turner.  Winters, who was arguably the most conservative politician to run for a party leadership in the second half of the twentieth century, called for the privatization of crown corporations and warned of the fiscal damage that new social programs would bring.  He died in 1969 of a heart attack.  Paul Hellyer's later public career exhibited certain, er, eccentricities, but in 1968 he was considered one Pearson's top ministers.  An unlikely Turner win in 1968 could have dramatically altered the history of the following forty years.  As testament to that fact, the Trudeau government's legendary profligacy began shortly after Turner's resignation as Finance Minister in 1975.  

Turner's time as Finance Minister did see deficits, but nothing like what would emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For years it was rumoured that Turner quit in disgust over Trudeau's volte face on price controls.  When running for the leadership in 1968 he declared that: "My time is now ... [I'm] not here for some vague, future convention in say, 1984."  When 1984 did roll around, the once young candidate was now the middle aged veteran, saddled with the legacy of the Trudeau years and faced with an electorate that was moving rightward.


Posted by Richard Anderson on June 11, 2009 | Permalink


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