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Paul Litt (Handout)
Paul Litt (Handout)

Review: Non-fiction

John of the 79 days Add to ...

Consider this possibility: 1974 was the last time that the Liberal Party won a federal election in its own right.

Every victory after that may have been a fluke: Joe Clark’s parliamentary bungling in 1980; the conservative schism that divided and enfeebled Jean Chrétien’s opposition.

It is possible that Pierre Trudeau set the Liberal Party on the path to destruction in the 1970s through his contempt for the West, his determination to transfer party functions to the Prime Minister’s Office and his stomach-turning orgy of patronage as he left?

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By the time he left, in 1984, the party “had serious finance troubles, haphazard fundraising, chaotic communications with riding organizations and … even lacked a comprehensive membership list.” Sound familiar?

That assessment comes from Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner, by Paul Litt, a historian at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Litt has written a compelling biography of a tragic political figure. He has also written, perhaps without meaning to, a history of the Liberal Party’s decline, and the crucial role that John Turner, prime minister for 79 days, played in that decline.

John Turner was a “management man”: part of that can-do generation that drew from the Second World War the lesson that no problem existed that couldn’t be solved if the right people armed themselves with the necessary facts.

He brought that conviction, along with a fine mind, a natural athleticism and a winning disposition, to Ottawa in the Pearson years. In the Trudeau years, he was golden.

Turner believed the solution to any impasse was to bring together everyone with a stake in the matter over scotch and cigars, and more scotch. As Pierre Trudeau’s most able cabinet minister, that’s how he navigated official-languages legislation, laws loosening restrictions on abortion and homosexual acts, and several budgets through the House.

As Litt observes, one secret to the Liberals’ success was the party’s practice of choosing a leader from either the English or French section of the country, and then buttressing him with a powerful lieutenant from the other section. John Turner was Pierre Trudeau’s indispensable English lieutenant.

Except Turner wanted the prime ministership, which Trudeau had no intention of surrendering. So the finance minister quit, retiring to a table at Winston’s, once Toronto’s most powerful restaurant, where he made a fortune as a lawyer and waited for the universe to unfold.

Two factions emerged within the Liberal Party, one coalescing around Turner, the other around Trudeau. When, finally, Turner assumed the leadership, many Trudeau loyalists regrouped around Jean Chrétien, who was never, not for one single instant, prepared to acknowledge Turner as the party’s rightful leader.

Rusty from his Bay Street years, Turner led the Liberals to a shellacking in 1984, though they were almost certain to lose anyway after two decades in power.

Litt offers a largely sympathetic portrait of an embattled leader struggling to renew the shambles of his party despite the myriad conspiracies to undermine him. He sees Turner’s Quixotic crusade to stop the Canada-U.S. free trade deal as something noble, even heroic.

His analysis of Chrétien’s schemes to bring the leader down is scathing; the Ottawa press gallery – shallow, cynical, prone to rove in packs and capriciously delighting in promoting, anointing and then destroying public figures – doesn’t come off much better.

But this is no hagiography. Litt also chronicles Turner’s vaunting ambition, his inability to manage people – ironic in a management man – his casual chauvinism (patting party president Iona Campagnolo’s bum caused him a world of hurt in the 1984 campaign), his drinking.

“I drink a bit,” Turner once acknowledged. “Scotch now and then. But if I’m drinking with some guy I don’t know and he stops, I stop too. He’s after something.”

Paul Litt has done more than give us a revealing account of Canada’s 17th prime minister. He has written an important history of Canadian politics in the 1970s and 1980s and, most important, chronicled the first years of the decades-long self-immolation of a once-great political party.

Turner versus Trudeau. Chrétien versus Turner. Martin versus Chrétien. Rae versus Ignatieff.

And now there’s almost nothing left to fight over.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief

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