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Former Prime Minister John Turner dead at 91

There was always a bit of a “what if” aspect to John Turner’s political career. Turner, who died yesterday at 91,  was seen as “The Golden Boy” of the Liberal Party from the time he entered parliament in 1962. An outstanding scholar and athlete, Turner was a successful lawyer, was fluently bilingual, was considered physically attractive by his contemporaries, and had developed political networks across the country. Yet in 1965, Prime Minister Pearson recruited Quebec intellectual Pierre Trudeau to run in the election that year and very quickly it was Trudeau who became the star as Attorney General, advocating liberalized abortion, divorce and LGBQT legislation.

Turner  served in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Lester Pearson in various capacities, most notably as Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. When Pearson retired, Turner ran to succeed him at the 1968 leadership convention, but lost out to Trudeau.

Turner and Trudeau in 1984

Under Trudeau, Turner served as Attorney General and as Finance Minister during a period of runaway inflation. He abruptly resigned from Cabinet in 1975, later revealing that he quit because he disagreed with the Trudeau government decision to impose wage and price controls after campaigning against them.

From 1975 to 1984, Turner worked as a corporate lawyer at Bay Street law firm McMillan Binch. In 1984, Trudeau retired after polls showed the Liberals faced certain defeat in the next election if he remained in office. Turner then re-entered politics, and defeated Jean Chrétien, his successor as finance minister, on the second ballot of the June 1984 Liberal leadership convention. He was formally appointed prime minister on June 30.

On July 9, only nine days after being sworn in, Turner called an election. Early in the campaign, Turner appeared rusty and old fashioned. Turner was also caught on television patting the bottoms of Liberal Party President Iona Campagnolo and Vice-President Lise St. Martin-Tremblay, causing an uproar among feminists, who saw such behaviour as sexist and condescending. One of Turner’s decision had significant impact in Hamilton. When he formed his short-lived cabinet he excluded Hamilton’s political power broker John Munro—a move that saw Munro choose to retire from politics, paving the way for the ascendency of Sheila Copps whop won the seat.

Elsewhere however, the situation was disastrous. On September 4, the Liberals were swept from power in a Tory landslide.1] The Liberals were cut down to 40 seats, the fewest in the party’s history.

Turner managed to defeat the Tory incumbent in Vancouver Quadra, Bill Clarke by 3,200 votes.

In the 1988 election, Turner campaigned much more vigorously than in 1984, rallying support against the proposed FTA, an agreement that he said would lead to the abandonment of Canada’s political sovereignty to the United States. His performance in the debate and his attacks on Mulroney and the FTA, where he accused the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister of “selling Canada out with one signature of a pen”, raised his poll numbers. The Liberals more than doubled their representation to 83 seats.  

Turner continued to represent Vancouver Quadra in the House of Commons for another few years as a backbencher before retiring from politics in the 1993 election.

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