A review of Paul Litt's Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner.
In the 1962 federal election, eight of every 10 eligible Canadian citizens cast a vote. This close to universal participation was emblematic of the centrality of politics to Canadian life at that time. The rest of that decade was full of passionate engagement in issues that touched on Canada’s relationship to the US and what our role in the Cold War would be, protecting and expanding individual rights, growing the welfare state, becoming bilingual and the rise of Quebec separatism. Canada was being transformed and politicians were leading the transformation.
In that context a young John Napier Turner turned his back on building a career in law and business and devoted himself to public service. Unlike today’s “star” candidates who insist on being lightly placed into the most opportune circumstances, Turner ran for a nomination, defeated a sitting Progressive Conservative and waited three years for a junior cabinet post. Already a rising star in Montreal legal circles by that time, his abilities, charm and connections surely signalled a lucrative and comfortable life in the private sector. Yet John Turner believed, and often said, that public service was second only to the clergy as a calling. Subsequent to leaving politics in 1989, he has devoted much of his time to trying to rekindle that spirit by talking about the importance of public policy to the future of the country. He travels the country urging young people to set aside their material aspirations and enter public life. As Canadians turn away from politics, getting people to vote is difficult enough, never mind standing as candidates.
The bulk of Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner by Paul Litt is devoted to the period between his entry into politics in 1962 and his resignation as Leader of the Liberal Party in 1989. That three-decade period is really two distinct political eras for Turner, separated by nine years in the wilderness of Bay Street. One of the attractions of this book is that it reclaims from history the first of those eras. Most Canadians are most likely to remember Turner for his time facing off against Brian Mulroney during the 1980s, ironically a time that Turner would surely largely rather forget. What Litt demonstrates, in interesting detail, is that John Turner the cabinet minister was a pivotal figure in the development of Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In his thorough but highly readable account of those years, Litt adds greatly to conventional political understanding of some key issues and developments.
Trust Pierre Trudeau to own Justice reform with a powerful quote that rings to this day — “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” — but one learns in Elusive Destiny that Turner did much of the heavy lifting to, as Litt puts it, “remove moral regulation from the Criminal Code.” Turner was one of many Catholic politicians to struggle with public issues like abortion and divorce. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s father resigned from Turner’s riding executive over liberalized abortion laws.
Non-historians will take away from this book a much better understanding of how two committed civil libertarians in Prime Minister Trudeau and Justice Minister Turner found themselves suspending rights by imposing the War Measures Act. Litt’s account shows a cabinet struggling with inadequate information about what they were dealing with. As Justice Minister Turner searched frantically for a less intrusive mechanism than the War Measures Act, Jean Marchand, one of Trudeau’s closest advisers on Quebec issues, convinced the government of the need to move immediately, using whatever device they had available.
Those who understand Trudeau and Turner only as rivals will be surprised at how closely they collaborated both on policy and politics. Turner’s efforts in the 1974 campaign are considered by Liberal campaigners to have been instrumental to success. Turner also spent a considerable amount of political capital to create broad acceptance for Trudeau government policies in places — western Canada, Washington — where Trudeau himself was a less than compelling salesman. On a personal level, the Trudeaus and Turners vacationed and dined together socially, even attending Midnight Mass together the night before Justin’s birth. Over time, different approaches to policy and the growing prominence of Turner took their toll on the relationship, but for a number of years they were a formidable team.
Perhaps most notably, Litt provides more facts and nuance around Turner’s departure from the Trudeau government than has previously been understood. The underlying reason was personal. Turner had held the two top jobs in cabinet and Trudeau was in for the long haul. With no further upward mobility available in politics, Turner was increasingly attracted to a new career challenge and the prospects of making some real money in the business world. But the catalyst was his opposition to the PM’s decision to impose mandatory controls on wages and prices. There was no disputing the dangers of runaway inflation. But Turner felt, as he had when he and Trudeau jointly campaigned against mandatory controls in the 1974 election, that a system of voluntary controls was a better way to go. As finance minister he was working furiously with business, labour and other stakeholder groups to arrive at an agreement on a voluntary control mechanism. When Trudeau pulled the plug on that process and decided to implement mandatory controls, Turner knew his time as Minister of Finance was up.
Like Don Draper of the Mad Men television series, the Turner of the 1960s epitomized cool in that era. He combined the charm that made him the most popular student at UBC and the preferred escort of Princess Margaret with dashing good looks. However, both the fictional character of Draper and the real John Turner relied on ways of interacting, of understanding the world around them, and on belief systems that would not age well. Society was changing, and Turner would struggle to change along with it. His idealism about church and public service would become anachronistic in an increasingly secular and cynical world. His male-oriented jock talk was fine in 1960s Ottawa, was enjoyed in 1970s corporate culture, but burned on impact in 1980s politics. New technologies also created difficulty. Litt makes it pretty plain that the more important television became to politics the less effective a communicator Turner was.
One clear shift in political culture was epitomized by the different approaches taken by Trudeau and Turner to creating public policy in Canada. John Turner was a true believer in brokerage politics. He knew the country — both its geography and its people — better than perhaps any other politician of his time. He saw Canada as a fragile construct composed of people and regions that were very different. He saw a country held together more by emotional connection and a desire to be together than by a grand intellectual construct. As a result he believed that policy needed to be built on consultation and compromise. Turner would take a half loaf accompanied by social peace rather than risk division through devotion to policy purity. As the 1960s morphed into the 1970s, compromise came to be the political equivalent of unprincipled, and Turner’s brokerage approach could look weak compared to the impression people had of Trudeau as the fighter for core principles. In Turner’s time as leader, these different approaches would come into sharp relief as the Liberal Party tried to address the Meech Lake Accord, supported by Turner because it secured Quebec’s signature to the Constitution on acceptable terms and opposed by Trudeau because it might compromise the Charter of Rights.
The parts of the book that deal with Turner’s period as Leader of the Liberal Party are as hard to read as the second half of an Elvis Presley biography. You know how it ends, and the process of getting there is painful. Litt pulls no punches in his assessment of Turner’s performance in this role. Much of his former skill at forging consensus among warring parties seemed to desert him in managing his caucus. His inability to harness television was deadly. His ability to rise to the occasion with brilliance was more sporadic than it had been.
Perhaps Turner knew this, and that is why he was so ambivalent about returning to politics in 1984. However, he was trapped. The John Turner persona was built around being PM-in-waiting. The leadership opening in 1984 was going to represent a change in his life whether he decided to run or not.
However, Litt also documents the extent to which the Liberal Party itself made it impossible for Turner. Jean Chrétien never accepted the results of the 1984 leadership in which he had lost to Turner. In Chrétien’s name and with his overt encouragement, his loyalists and assorted opportunists not only tried to remove Turner but actively sought to hurt his and the Liberal Party’s chances of winning. When his greatest moment as leader arrived and his free trade debate showdown with Mulroney gave the Liberals a shot at victory in the 1988 election, the Progressive Conservatives were able to rebound by reminding Canadians of the lack of confidence in Turner the Liberals themselves had shown. “He’s not fighting for your job, he’s fighting for his own” was a devastating PC comeback.
Paul Litt, a historian at Carleton University, does an excellent job of bringing history to life. All of the events described are capable of multiple interpretations, but Litt finds a good balance between Turner’s perspective and that of other contemporaries. If this book finds its way into university classrooms, the first half of the book might inspire young people to rise to our own occasion of crisis and enter public life to shape Canada’s future.
The most telling thing about John Turner is that if you had told him in 1962 how it would all end in 1988, he would have done it all again anyway. That’s the call of public service.
Paul Litt. Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.