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Building a Political Legacy

June 9, 2009

John Turner, Canada’s 17th (Liberal) Prime Minister, turned 80 on Sunday, June 7. Now some might stifle a yawn, but it’s always instructive to reflect on a little history at certain junctures. What people remember Turner for is his September 1984 loss to Brian Mulroney (Conservative), who won a resounding victory. In contrast to Mulroney’s more ebullient style, Turner was more methodical and pensive. Turner lost the election in large part to strong negative feelings by many Canadians towards former PM Pierre Trudeau, which was compounded by numerous last-minute patronage appointments by Trudeau.

Turner fought vehemently against the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., which went into effect in 1989. On October 12, 1988 he made the following statement: “Any country that is willing to surrender economic levers inevitably yields levers politically and surrenders a large chunk of its ability to remain a sovereign nation. I don’t believe our future depends on our yielding those economic levers of sovereignty to become a junior partner in Fortress North America to the United States.”

Debate continues among a variety of experts on whether the FTA, and subsequently NAFTA, have benefitted Canada, although it is important to note that Canada currently has a $74 billion trade surplus with the U.S. But Turner held to his beliefs and conducted himself then and in later years with integrity. One sidebar story of which most Canadians are unaware is that in 1965 while at a beach in Barbados Turner saw a man having difficulty in the water. Being a strong swimmer he swam out to assist the man. As fate would have it, the man he rescued was noneother than former Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker!

It is rather ironical that some 25 years later, John Turner’s reputation and legacy is now stronger than during his years as a politician. This is in sharp contrast to Brian Mulroney, who was PM for two consecutive terms and who made some notable achievements. Yet Mulroney’s reputation is now in tatters as a result of the ongoing Oliphant inquiry into business dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.

What will be Brian Mulroney’s legacy in the long-term?

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