Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner by Paul Litt (UBC Press, $39.95, 494 pages)

When I first heard that there was a biography of John Turner being published, my reaction was simple: why? Turner was prime minister for the summer of 1984 (Parliament never sat while he was in office) and he did not seem to leave much of an imprint on this country. Of course, for Interim readers, Turner is best known for the sordid legacy of broadening the abortion law as Pierre Trudeau’s justice minister.

But Paul Litt’s oddly titled biography Elusive Destiny – destinies, if they exist, are not eluded – is one of the best political books in years. Turner is an interesting subject because (directly or indirectly) he has been at the center of so much politics over the past four decades and Litt tells his story masterfully.

In almost every area of Turner’s life, Litt has the right touch, providing sufficient detail without getting unnecessarily bogged down in minutiae. Turner was born in England, moved to Canada after his father died, and because he was bright, athletic and ambitious, the world was his oyster. Turner turned to politics, serving in various portfolios under Lester Pearson and ran for Liberal leader when Pearson stepped aside. Pearson finished third in the race won by Pierre Trudeau, setting up a (political) lifelong conflict and contest between the two. Turner wanted Trudeau’s job and Trudeau wasn’t going anywhere. Litt captures the tension between the two as Turner was a valuable political lieutenant and advisor at the same time he wanted to replace the man he was assisting. (Sounds like the Jean Chretien-Paul Martin relationship two decades later.) But their political differences, while a source of conflict, were a political asset. Litt says: “Turner and Trudeau had different political styles that generated contrasting public images. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: their strengths could complement one another for the benefit of the party and the nation.” Despite the presence of Liberal heavyweights such as Mitchell Sharp and Allan MacEachren, “through hard work, political smarts, resilience, and sheer talent, John Turner had emerged as the leading English Canadian Liberal of his time.” Turner was Trudeau’s justice minister and later finance minister, but in 1975, with no more ladder to climb while his rival sat on the top rung, Turner left politics for life in corporate law.

Turner’s plotting for the top job of Liberal Party leader and prime minister did not stop. Indeed, Litt does a fine job describing the ambition, but he comes up short in explaining how his striving might have limited his opportunities for success. When Turner returned to politics in 1984 to replace Trudeau as leader and (briefly) prime minister, he defeated Jean Chretien but deepened the chasm between the Trudeau-Chretien wing of the party and that of Turner-Martin. The political infighting continues to this day.

Litt does a wonderful job telling this story. It does not require much reading between the lines to understand that the Turner-Trudeau conflict was the prelude to the Martin-Chretien feud that helped destroy the Liberal Party after Chretien’s three majority governments. For political intrigue, few stories can compare. Turner is thus an important character in Canada’s recent political history, and the internecine battles within the Liberal Party, even if he is one we are likely to dismiss or forget. Elusive Destiny should correct that oversight. In some ways Litt’s book is the biography of a political party as much as it is the biography of one of its central characters.

Interim readers will also have a narrower interest than mere political intrigue: Turner’s role in decriminalizing abortion. Litt argues that Turner is a serious Catholic who struggled to balance his religious obligations and his responsibility to his government and the prime minister’s prerogatives.

Litt notes that when Trudeau was justice minister under Pearson, he hoped the position would become “a department planning for the society of tomorrow.” As justice minister, Trudeau introduced an omnibus bill of 120 clauses covering “issues such as gun control, lotteries and drunk driving” although “its most notable measures dealt with abortion and homosexuality.” With Parliament prorogued for the change in Liberal leadership, it wasn’t passed and Turner reintroduced the bill in 1968 and it became “his most pressing priority.” Litt says Turner supported reforms toward greater liberalization on various fronts but would have preferred an incremental approach to change. Thus Turner favoured dividing the bill into its various parts and permitting a free vote, but he would lose that argument as Trudeau campaigned on the omnibus bill and had no interest in compromise.

Litt simply does not understand the abortion issue and follows the conventional wisdom that Turner created a “middle ground between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces” by permitting abortion if it was approved by a hospital therapeutic abortion committee (TAC). Litt, like Turner, cannot admit that the TACs were rubber stamp bodies that would approve almost every abortion brought before them, and thus the law did not merely broaden abortion, but effectively legalized it even if it was formally still part of the Criminal Code. This misunderstanding on the part of the biographer is forgivable as he merely mimics the conventional wisdom about the omnibus bill; Turner’s mistake is not so easily forgiven.

Turner tried to have it both ways. He permitted abortions if approved by TACs and established a broadly worded rational that exempted doctors and women from criminal prosecution if they acted “in good faith” because in the doctor’s judgement the abortion is “necessary to preserve the life of the mother of a child that has not become a human being.” The Turner compromise, says Litt, “downloaded the issue to doctors.” That assumes that Turner thought TACs would consider each case on the medical merits rather than just okaying practically ever abortion that came their way. Litt gives Turner the benefit of the doubt, which is at the very least a charitable view.

Abortion, Litt says, “challenged Turner to reconcile his private religious beliefs with his public duty as a politician.” Never mind the narrow definition of public duty and the unnecessary dichotomy of those two interests. Litt establishes Turner’s bonafides as serious Catholic before claiming the justice minister divided abortion into “two basic questions – one a matter of politics; the other of conscience.” A serious Catholic would not see those two questions as separate. Turner justified the bill as not legalizing abortion but clarifying and codifying established practices, then he   sought input from Catholic lawyers who assured him that the courts already permitted abortion and that the new law would add clarity to the issue.

Then, Litt reports, Turner turned to abortion as a matter of conscience, claiming he “wrestled with his duty as a Catholic legislator” and “sought expert opinion.” He raised the issue with members of the theological faculty at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, including Rev. Robert W. Crooker, who advised that while a Catholic should oppose the abortion bill, Turner also had responsibilities to his government. Turner received a similar opinion from an unidentified “Dominican theologian from Universities Laval” in Montreal who added that Catholic legislators must not impose their morals on others. Litt also notes that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose executive Turner met with, effectively gave the same advice. Litt reports Turner told the CCCB the omnibus “compromise” was the best that could be achieved to which  Bishop Alexander Carter – president of the conference and brother to the future Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter – said: “Gentlemen, I think John has convinced us. Let’s have a drink.”

After the exercises in hand-wringing, the bill passed and “the only apparent political damage” Turner suffered was the loss of his riding association president, Dalton J. McGuinty Sr., a future MPP and the father of the future Liberal premier of Ontario.

It is impossible to know what was in Turner’s heart and head at the time. Litt clearly thinks Turner was a Catholic who struggled with his conscience before making a difficult decision to go against his church. I’m not so sure. It is one thing to take bad advice, but what about the possibility that Turner cherry-picked the theologians that would green light what he was going to do all along?

As the abortion issue illustrates, Litt treats Turner sympathetically although he acknowledges his complexities and frailties. Of Turner’s fondness for alcohol, Litt writes: “sometimes, in the judgement of guests, he crossed the wavering, culturally contingent line between acceptable social lubrication and having one too many.” He calls criticism of Turner’s drinking “sanctimonious” but admits they (the criticisms) could hardly be ignored. And then the author moves on to other issues.

But back to the odd title and Turner’s greatest weakness (his ambition, which the author amply describes) and Litt’s greatest oversight (suggesting the role of Turner’s ambition in his so-called elusive destiny). Turner was all too willing to do what it took to get ahead, including (if you take Litt seriously) violating his own conscience on abortion and going against his own church’s moral teaching, in order to keep his seat around the cabinet table. It is possible that something – providence, cosmic justice, the voters – keep such people away from power. Ambition, if properly harnessed, can help people excel, but it can also lead to their downfall. The latter is the reality of John Turner’s story.

Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim and author of Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal.