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John Turner and the demise of gentlemanly politics

Politicians like the late prime minister are sources of inspiration for public service, intelligent discourse and common decency.

John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister, passed away on Sept. 19 at the age of 91.

A lawyer by trade, he had a serious relationship with Princess Margaret and was an Olympic-calibre athlete in track and field. He served as a Liberal MP from 1962 to 1976 in two ridings, St. Lawrence-St. George and Ottawa-Carleton, and held senior ministerial roles in Finance and Justice in then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s cabinet.

After heading to Bay Street for nine years, he returned to politics and became Liberal leader and prime minister on June 30, 1984.

His grip on 24 Sussex Drive wasn’t vice-like, however. Turner lost the Sept. 4, 1984, federal election to Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives in the biggest landslide in Canadian political history. He resigned as prime minister on Sept. 17, having only spent 79 days in office.

John Turner (Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada)

Undaunted and doggedly determined, he carried on as leader of the Opposition and Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra. He lost again to Mulroney in 1988 – the free-trade election.

When his successor, Jean Chretien (who had lost the Liberal leadership race to him six years earlier), was chosen on June 10, 1990, Turner stepped down as party leader. He served out the remainder of his term and retired just before the 1993 federal election.

Turner’s political ideas were obviously not in sync with small ‘c’ conservative principles. He had left-of-centre views when it came to the size of the state and funding government programs. He was relatively level-headed with respect to business interests and the free market. His public stance against free trade was rumoured to have been different than his private views, although the jury is still out.

Like other former prime ministers, Turner was available as a political sounding board and friendly ear. His health declined in recent years, but he remained a popular presence at party conventions, meetings and the like.

The loss of a national leader, no matter the political stripe, is always sad. It would take an additional column (or two) to include the wonderful tributes to Turner. Here are but a few.

Mulroney, who grew to respect and admire his old political adversary (and vice versa), said on CBC News Network that Turner “never believed in the politics of personal destruction.” His predecessor was “a great House of Commons man,” he continued, and “believed in democracy; he believed in our parliamentary system. In his career, he performed brilliantly in the high portfolios that he was given.”

Former prime minister Paul Martin’s statement noted that Turner “lived a life that was rich and accomplished, full and fulfilling.”

Scott Reid, who served as Martin’s director of communications, tweeted he was “the lion of the Liberal Party. … A man who walked with Kings and Queens – and waltzed with Princesses.”

Former Ontario premier Bob Rae praised his “vitality and determination, his loyalty to friends, his belief in public service and in Parliament itself – he served his country with great distinction and honour.”

Former prime minister Stephen Harper wrote his “legacy and commitment to public service will be remembered for generations.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted his “optimistic outlook, energetic approach and tireless service inspired many – and our country is a better place for it.”

Arthur Milnes, an author/historian who helped with Mulroney’s memoirs and served as a speechwriter to Harper several years after I did, described Turner as a “man and friend who lived and breathed Canadian history” in a Sept. 21 Ottawa Citizen piece. He wrote how the late PM’s “love for Canada was only topped by the enthusiastic challenge always presented each young Canadian he met – and I was one of them once – to get involved in politics and public affairs. It was irrelevant which party you chose. ‘Get involved,’ he’d say. ‘Canada is worth it.’”

I don’t have any personal stories about Turner. He lived close to my childhood home in Toronto’s Forest Hill area, so I saw him out and about. We chatted two or three times, and only once after I’d served as a speechwriter to Harper. He was always pleasant and upbeat, and – as others have pointed out – a true gentleman.

In fact, Turner’s death signals that the final days of the gentlemanly nature of politics are nearly upon us.

Once an important component in the political toolbox, it’s gradually become a forgotten entity. The camaraderie that existed when political foes battled in Parliament during the day, and headed out for dinner and drinks that night without batting an eye, are distant memories in the modern age of rigid partisanship.

We should hold up politicians like Turner as sources of inspiration for public service, intelligent discourse and common decency. Political differences aside, championing role models from different walks of life is always the right thing to do.

Rest in peace, honourable gentleman.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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