John Turner embodied integrity, decency and honour
With all that’s going on these days – including the omnipresent and thoroughly depressing struggle with COVID-19 and the too-long U.S. election and Donald Trump’s subsequent whine-o-rama – it seems some stories that deserve more attention have been overshadowed.
For me, one of the stories that merited much more attention was the death of former Prime Minister John Turner in September.
Even though Turner was only PM for 79 days, he was probably one of the most influential figures in Canadian politics in the latter half of the 20th century. And he led a thoroughly remarkable life.
Along with being a key cabinet minister in the Pearson and Trudeau governments of the Sixties and Seventies and responsible for introducing legislation that truly changed Canada’s direction, Turner was also the Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons while I was growing up in the Eighties. And that was a job which seemed to be a Herculean task through my own young eyes.
Even though during that tumultuous time he was being eviscerated by the press, stabbed in the back by his predecessor (Trudeau), his successor (Chretien), as well as by members of the caucus he was leading, not to mention being absolutely pilloried by his political opponents, Turner somehow seemed to remain the picture of integrity, decency and honour.
I’m not sure how he managed to pull that off, or how he managed not to simply just lash out, tell everyone to go pound sand, and run off to earn millions far away from the limelight of politics. But I imagine it was because Turner was genuinely concerned about the country and passionate about making Canada a better place.
After his death in September I spent a bit of time re-reading Paul Litt’s excellent biography, Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner. What struck me was” a) how incredible Turner’s life had been, and b) how unlikely it would be today for someone like him to stand for election and to get elected.
Turner was born in London, England in 1929. His father, Leonard Turner, died when John was three. His mother, Phyllis Gregory, was a well-educated economist who rose to great heights in public service at a time when it was pretty much unheard of for women to do such things.
She also single-handedly managed to raise two kids (John and his sister Brenda) in Ottawa during the Great Depression, which I imagine was no mean feat.
While Phyllis was courted by several prominent men during that time, including Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, she decided to focus on her work until the end of the Second World War. That’s when she married super-rich industrialist Frank Ross – who later became the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia – and moved back to her home province of B.C. with her kids in tow.
As a young man, John Turner seemed to master everything he did effortlessly. He was incredibly intelligent and well-versed in the great issues of the day, having been privy to conversation at his home between Canada’s top civil servants (including his mom) and top politicians of the day.
He was also a hard-working and gifted athlete, who just narrowly missed representing Canada at the Olympics in 1948 as a sprinter due to an unfortunate injury sustained in a car accident.
And he was one of those people who seemed to be involved in every single extracurricular activity when he was both in high school as well as in university.
He also drove a motorcycle every day to university while studying as an undergrad at UBC, which seems pretty darned cool.
Turner was a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford and later at the University of Paris.
He was also charming, with an inherent ability to get along with just about anyone. So great were his charms that he came ‘this close’ (as Maxwell Smart used to say) to marrying Princess Margaret, which would have made him a Canadian Prince.
For the longest time Turner considered becoming a priest, but instead he became a lawyer (kind of the exact opposite, I suppose) and moved to Montreal, once again being involved in all sorts of charities and clubs, learning French and making positive connections with everyone. He hobnobbed with people like the Johnson family and Maurice Duplessis and attended Montreal Canadiens games (we all have our dark, disturbing secrets).
In 1962, in his early thirties, Turner ran for office in a Montreal-area riding and won easily. His political career took off almost immediately. He became Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs in Lester Pearson’s government, unsuccessfully (yet impressively) ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1968 at the age of 38, and became Justice Minister and Finance Minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government before that relationship soured.
For all of Trudeau’s major accomplishments during his first term in government, Turner was credited with the heavy lifting, which probably didn’t sit well with Trudeau, a man with a monstrous ego.
Turner resigned in 1975 and spent the next nine years in a sort of ‘Exile on Bay Street’. He raked in money, spent time with his family and took the occasional potshot at the Trudeau government.
When Trudeau finally took his ‘walk in the snow’ in 1984 and resigned, Turner was pressured to come back and lead the Liberal Party to glory. He was considered the Golden Boy by some party faithful, the inevitable choice.
Things did not go well for him in 1984. It might seem remarkable in retrospect, but for a period of time John Turner and the Liberals were actually outpolling the Conservatives ahead of the September 1984 election. Yet his political skills had gotten a tad rusty in his time away from politics. Before leaving, Trudeau asked Turner to make roughly 200 patronage appointments for him. It was a poisoned chalice if there ever was one, and it pretty much sank Turner’s chances of winning anything.
In the end, Turner’s Liberals (who had been in power for over two decades with the exception of the Clark minority government of 1979) got shellacked by the Conservatives. They received the lowest total number of seats they had ever gotten since Confederation. Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister with over 50 per cent of the popular vote.
Turner continued on and spent considerable effort building up the decimated party, but had to deal with all sorts of chaos coming from Trudeau and the Jean Chrétien camp, folks who smelled blood and were hungry for power. In the end Turner came close to redeeming himself in the Free Trade election of 1988, but the Tories won again and he was eventually replaced by his foe, Chrétien.
All told, John Turner had a remarkable political career. But in 2020, would someone like him – a highly successful, well-educated and incredibly able individual with oodles of talent – even consider running for public office? I’m not so sure about that.
The thing about someone like John Turner is that no matter what political persuasion you were, you knew he had a deep and abiding passion for making the country a better place. He gave up years of his life in politics to try and make that a reality.
Nowadays, though, I think you’d be hard-pressed to convince someone so successful, so talented to go into politics, because it has become so utterly toxic. Why would someone who could live a prosperous, relatively peaceful and private life open themselves up to being attacked constantly on social media, getting threatened and being called all sorts of names for simply trying to make the country a better place?
And would voters even vote for someone like Turner? He would be regarded as a member of the elite and be subjected to all kinds of bile from his political opponents.
In any event, John Turner left a lasting legacy of service to his country and did make Canada a better place to live in.
May he rest in peace.