From Golden Boy to Yesterday’s Man

Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner by Paul Litt

UBC Press, 448 pgs, $37.95

Reviewed by Grant Morgan

When John Turner became Prime Minister in 1984, the Liberal Party had reigned in Ottawa for more than 20 of the previous 21 years, and 43 years of the previous 50. It was a political record unmatched in the free world. Less than three months later, the Liberal Party suffered what was, at the time, the worst defeat in its history,  sowing internal divisions which remain with the party to this day. In Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner, author Paul Litt examines some of the major reasons for this failure, and its long-term repercussions. Elusive Destiny also provides an instructive look at the perils of the modern politics of image and leadership.

Paul Litt, a professor of history at Carleton University whose previous work focused Canadian nationalism, wrote the book with the full cooperation from Turner, who stated to Litt that he had no intention of writing memoirs of his own. Elusive Destiny provides a largely sympathetic but detailed account of the rise and fall of on one of the great “might-have-been” figures in Canadian politics.

Turner’s formative years, were characterized by tireless self-improvement. Raised by his ambitious and talented mother, Turner was subjected to high expectations from childhood. He responded with remarkable effort and success, becoming an Olympic-level athlete and Rhodes Scholar. His mother’s civil service background (and her second marriage to a powerful businessman) connected Turner to Ottawa power-brokers at an early age. When Turner entered politics in his early 30’s, he rose quickly within the Liberal caucus, becoming a cabinet minister before he turned 40. When Turner first sought the Liberal leadership in 1968, he was ten years younger than eventual winner Pierre Trudeau. He seemed on track to eventually become Prime Minister.

It was within the Trudeau cabinet, however, that Turner encountered the first true obstacles in his career. Litt describes in great detail Turner’s work as minister of justice (dealing with the October Crisis) and in Finance, facing the inflation challenges of the 1970’s. While Turner’s work as a Minister was highly effective, his relationship with Trudeau was highly problematic. A lack of perceived support and confidence from Trudeau was as much to blame for Turner’s 1975 exit from politics as any substantive policy difference. The animosity from Turner’s resignation was exacerbated by periodic criticisms of the Trudeau government voiced by Turner in the time between his resignation and his return to politics to run for the Liberal leadership in 1984.

Turner’s leadership bid initially looked like a sure thing. He had strong record as a cabinet minister, an extremely positive media profile that had only been enhanced by his years outside of politics and was untarnished by the struggles of the late Trudeau years. Importantly, he also had broad support within caucus and party elites. It was exactly at this point, however, that cracks appeared in Turner’s armour. His television presence, a minor weakness as a cabinet minister, was far more glaring as a leadership candidate. His speaking style and mannerisms, already slightly dated in the 1970’s, appeared anachronistic by 1984. His adherence to the old unwritten rules of politics had prevented him from putting a campaign organization together before Trudeau’s resignation. All of these factors, combined with high media expectations and the natural rust that comes from being out of politics for nine years naturally made Turner nervous, which was apparent in his campaign performance. This problem was exacerbated by Turner’s personality, which was highly sensitive to expectations. Because of these factors, much of Turner’s early lead was squandered, and the leadership convention was uncomfortably close.

Turner’s problematic performance in the leadership campaign, however, was only a small taste of what was to come in the ensuing general election. Litt details the now well-known history of the 1984 election, starting with Turner’s problematic transition which was marred by poor relations with Trudeau and the Chretien supporters within the party. Litt lays out the logic for Turner’s decisions to call an election for September 1984, and to make a series of patronage appointments proposed by Trudeau, but the logic is still tortured in hindsight. The Liberal campaign, marked by media gaffes, a disastrous debate performance, and national disorganization, is recounted in detail into its disastrous defeat.

The 1984 election was only the beginning of Turner’s leadership struggles. Having won the leadership on the basis of being the candidate most likely to win, Turner was naturally in a weakened position after the defeat. He was subject to near-constant negative media commentary and sabotage from disaffected backbench MP’s. Many of the rumours and caucus unrest which bedeviled Turner’s time as opposition leader could be traced to those associated with leadership rival Jean Chretien.

Indeed, Chretien comes off as a distinctly unlikeable character in the story, with Litt depicting him as underhanded and vindictive. The internal party divisions originating in the Turner-Chretien feud would haunt the Liberal party for decades. The overall portrait is of a party shocked by the loss of power, seeking a scapegoat, and struggling to maintain order without the incentives which power provides. Turner struggled with caucus revolts for his entire time as leader, including a nascent coup attempt during the 1988 federal election campaign. That campaign, however, provided Turner with a measure of redemption. His performance in the 1988 campaign, galvanized by his genuine opposition to free trade, was a vast improvement on his 1984 effort, and helped to revitalize his party. The improved campaign performance also returned to Turner much of the public dignity he lost in 1984, and allowed him to retire on his own terms two years later.

With any political biography, there exists a risk that the writer will take an overly or insufficiently critical attitude towards some of the actions and opinions of the subject. Unfortunately, Elusive Destiny does not entirely avoid this trap. Litt is clearly sympathetic to Turner’s views on the role of government and frequently praises Turner’s “compassion” in contrast with a “neoliberal” straw man which “envisions no positive role for government.”

A more nuanced understanding of the neoliberal mindset which emerged in political and business circles in the 1980’s, and its influence on Canadian politics, would have been more insightful. A similar bias creeps into Litt’s writing when discussing Turner’s opposition to free trade in 1988. Litt is quick to support Turner’s opposition, arguing that it reflected a principled English-Canadian nationalism which Turner instinctively understood. Litt also notes a number of trade disputes the agreement has failed to prevent, such as the softwood lumber debate, arguing that these incidents demonstrate the veracity of Turner’s opposition, but fails to note the many of the dire predictions made by Turner 1988 (such as the loss of Canada’s health care system) have not occurred, and completely ignoring the substantial benefits of the agreement.

Sympathy for the subject and his political views may have also led Litt to be insufficiently critical of the two great errors in judgment which Turner made in June of 1984: calling an early election and agreeing to make the patronage appointments requested by Trudeau. On the issue of the 1984 election, Litt provides a list of the advantages and disadvantages of calling either a summer or autumn election, and argues that while holding a summer election had substantial risks, it was an attempt to make the most of the momentary lead which the Liberals enjoyed in the polls.

However, Litt glosses over how the decision to go to the polls early was widely viewed as a mistake at the time by the political professionals within the Liberal party itself. Litt recalls a story about two Liberal campaign staffers joking about jumping off a boat when the decision was made, yet barely questions the wisdom of the decision itself. Regarding the decision to make a series of patronage appointments on behalf of Trudeau, rather than having Trudeau make the appointments himself, Litt is again insufficiently critical of Turner’s judgment. While Litt is justifiably critical of Trudeau’s actions, first for proposing the politically unpalatable appointments and for making subsequent dispute with Turner public, he fails to take Turner to task, either for approving of the appointments (violating Turner’s promise of an “accountable” government), or for making the appointments while simultaneously calling an election (a horrible political misjudgment). Litt does not acknowledge what Brian Mulroney put simply in the subsequent leader’s debates: that Turner could have said “no.”

Elusive Destiny rightly attributes many of Turner’s struggles in the 1984 election, and in the subsequent management of the Liberal caucus, to both the internal divisions of the Liberal party and to a political environment which no longer played by the gentlemanly rules to which Turner was accustomed.

Astute readers, however, will also take note of an important lesson provided by Litt regarding political leadership skills: they must be constantly honed and practice to be effective. Turner struggled in 1984 not only because his style was ill-suited to television and his scruples ill-suited to internal party warfare, but also because he was out of practice. Indeed, the contrast Litt provides between Turner’s virtuosic issue management as a cabinet minister and his problematic performance as Liberal leader is stunning, but more understandable when one considers that in 1984 Turner had been out of politics for nearly a decade. That Turner’s performance in the 1988 election was far superior, is, in this context, not surprising; he had four years of practice in the interim. This lesson should be remembered by any political party seeking salvation from the arrival of a new leader or the return of one from exile.

In conclusion, Elusive Destiny occasionally reflects the political biases of the author, it is nonetheless valuable for three reasons. First, it provides insight into the career of one of the most important Liberal political figures of the past 40 years. Secondly, it helps us understand the history of the division and decline of “big-L” Canadian liberalism. Finally, it provides a cautionary tale, still relevant today, of the risks of relying on a new leader alone to revive a troubled political party.

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