John Turner: A hero for Liberals?

I am at the very beginning of Carleton University historian Paul Litt's biography of John Napier Turner, who, until Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff came along, was the symbol of Liberal failure in the last century-and-a-half. And yet, despite being crushed twice at the polls (in 1984 and in 1988) by his chief opponent Brian Mulroney, Litt — seven pages in to his Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner — sets out an audacious thesis to prove, over the next 400 pages that John Turner is no failure but is, in fact, a hero:

“Turner's glorious opposition to free trade during the 1988 election offered Canadians an alternative of wholesale continental integration. He lost that battle but won an enduring place in history by making the case for a more independent Canada. The leading anglophone Liberal of the late twentieth century, John Turner deserves to be remembered for more than the frustrations he encountered in the final chapter of his career. His destiny was elusive; his legacy, substantial.”

Well, first of all, one's destiny cannot, by definition, be “elusive.” It is what it is. If you are at point B in your life, well, your destiny was point B. Point A might have been elusive for you but, by definition, it was not your destiny. Point B was your destiny, despite your attempts to reach Point A, and so your destiny could not have been elusive.

But more importantly: Litt must overcome the perception I think many have of John Turner that was best sketched out in Greg Weston's wonderfully gossipy and impeccably researched account of Turner's return to politics in 1984 and Turner's subsequent first drubbing by Mulroney (Reign of Error, 1988).  I am going to need a great deal of convincing in Litt's next 393 pages to overturn my initial estimation of our country's 17th prime minister.  For one thing, Litt holds out Turner as the “leading Anglophone Liberal of the late twentieth century.” Well, what does 'late twentieth century' mean? After 1950? If so, surely some might claim Lester Pearson as more “leading” than Turner. And even if we draw the cutoff line at 1970, a good case could be made that that Juggernaut, Windsor, Ont.-born Paul Martin easily eclipses Turner as the “leading Anglophone Liberal.” Martin was the finance minister who, in 1993, took decisive, if controversial, steps to undo the fiscal mess that finance ministers from Turner through to Michael Wilson had got us into. Turner quit on Trudeau as finance minister and when he returned, he led the Liberals twice into a general election and both times his opponent won majority governments. Say what you will about Martin but he never quit on Chretien during the tough times of the 1990s and, when he did say sayonara, it was when the country's finances were in good enough that it could afford to lose a finance minister. Martin, too, led his Liberals twice into election but he won one, albeit a minority, and when he lost his last one, it was a squeaker to Stephen Harper's minority. (And Martin, one could argue, faced a tremendous hurdle that Turner did not in that Martin had to overcome the stench of the Sponsorship Scandal, arguably the biggest stink to hit an incumbent government since Sir John A. and the Pacific Scandal)

And if holding the premiership was not a defining characteristic of being “the leading Anglophone Liberal of the late 20th century”, then one could conceivably argue that Allan MacEachen, Trudeau's minister of everything, was that Liberal. Or John Manley. Or Sheila Copps. Or, looking further than Ottawa, what about Clyde Wells?

But, as I said, I'm only on page 7 of Litt's book. And if I find myself arguing with an author on page 7, that's usually a good sign I'm going to enjoy the rest of the book.

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