By the mid-point of the 1980s, Canada was looking for a change. Joe Clark had been ousted as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, replaced by newcomer Brian Mulroney, who did not have a seat in Parliament upon his leadership victory.
For the first time since 1968, the Liberals were not led by Pierre Trudeau. He had retired in 1984 and was replaced by former Member of Parliament, John Turner. Turner had left politics in the mid-1970s but returned to run for the leadership of the party.
For the past 21 years, since 1963, apart from 1979 to 1980, Canada had been led by the Liberals and the campaign would be fought on the record of the Liberals as such.
While the Liberals had several successes from 1980 to 1984, including the patriation of the Canadian constitution, there had been several scandals that hurt the party’s image in the country. In Quebec, there was anger at the Liberals over the constitution which went ahead without the approval of the Quebec provincial government. Due to the anger towards the Liberals in Quebec, the Progressive Conservatives saw Brian Mulroney, who was from Quebec and fluently bilingual, as the perfect person to lead the party.
Turner was not required to call an election until 1985 but he chose to do so when poll data showed the Liberals were leading. This would prove to be a bad idea. Both Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II were scheduled to tour Canada in the summer of 1984, which would have given Turner a great chance to get his face out to the country with two high profile guests. Instead, he asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament on July 4, and the election was set for Sept. 4.
The Queen then announced she would not visit during an election campaign. The Liberals would find alternatives to the Queen, including the Queen Mother, but that did not happen.
Turner would say of postponing the visit, quote:
“I had to do my duty as I saw it. If it costs me votes, so be it.”
Turner would go to London at the start of the campaign, where he would go to church with The Queen and have lunch with the Queen Mother. He had known the family since the 1950s, when there was speculation that he and Princess Margaret would marry. Turner was also born in England, which made him the first prime minister in almost a century to have the distinction of being born outside Canada.
Turner would campaign in the Vancouver Quadra Riding, going up against Conservative Bill Clarke, who had held the riding since 1972. Clarke would say quote:
“The Liberals have been trying to beat him since 1972. They just can’t seem to do it.”
Turner had chosen the riding because it was his hope to bring the West back into Confederation and he wanted to rebuild the party in the region. He had also lived in the riding for four years when he was a student at the University of British Columbia.
The campaign would prove to be one of the most expensive in Canadian history to that point. Both the Liberals and Conservatives were expected to throw $6 million towards the campaign, amounting to $14 million today.
The main issue of the campaign was the economy and unemployment, and Turner would portray himself as a change from the previous Liberal government, with the party offering training programs for jobless youth who had left school and were under the age of 21. The Conservatives in contrast proposed a tax credit scheme for employers hiring young people.
The Liberal campaign would put Turner forward as an economic fixer and a man right for the times thanks to his career as a corporate lawyer. Bill Lee, the Liberal national manager, would state, quote:
“No gunslinger idea, just Turner and what he stands for.”
Turner would state of his plan for the Liberal Party, quote:
“This party is going to be rebuilt in government or out of government. The Liberal Party elected me in a fair and open convention, and I think the Liberal Party will stay with me, particularly when I win.”
Turner would also attack Mulroney heavily, calling him a weather vane politician who blows with the wind, and a Canadian version of Ronald Reagan.
Turner would pledge to put a 13 per cent tax on Canadians making more than $60,000, while also creating a $602 a month guaranteed income settlement for 80,000 elderly individuals below the poverty line.
The Conservatives would take a different approach, portraying Mulroney as a man that voters could unite behind. The party would also portray itself as the one that would listen to public concerns and that would consult with the provinces, in contrast to how they portrayed the Liberals, as arrogant.
Mulroney would state at the start of the campaign, quote:
The NDP, once again led by Ed Broadbent, would focus on calling Tuner and Mulroney, the Bobbsey Twins of Bay Street, to show voters that there was little difference between the two parties. The party would also spend $3 million on the campaign, half of which went towards advertising.
Overall, the election was expected to cost taxpayers about $96 million, equaling about $224 million today.
The Liberal campaign would get off on a rough start. Turner would speak of creating make work programs, a phrase that had long since been replaced by the phrase job creation programs. Worse, he was caught on camera patting the female Liberal Party President on the buttocks. Turner would state it was just a friendly gesture, but many saw it as condescending and something from a bygone era. He would be seen doing it several times, but by mid-August promised to stop doing so, stating quote:
“I certainly meant no disrespect or offence and if I had offended anyone, I was sorry. It hasn’t happened since, and it won’t happen again.”
Also, during the campaign, Turner stated that Manitoba’s unemployment rate was low because people were leaving the province. The population was growing, and Turner was forced to apologize a few days later.
Turner would not get his campaign going until near the end of July, while the Conservatives had already been flying around the country as early as July 12. Even the New Democratic Party was had started campaigning earlier than the Liberals.
The Conservative campaign was not without its own gaffes. At the end of July, during a late-night flight from Montreal, spoke about the appointment of Bryce Mackasey as ambassador to Portugal. He would state quote:
“There’s no whore like an old whore.”
He would add that if he was Mackasey, would have, quote:
“Been right down there in the trough too.”
Mulroney stated he hoped his remarks were off the record but on July 16, he was quoted extensively in the Ottawa Citizen.
Mulroney would state that he was misunderstood, but his aide would say that he learned from the lesson, adding quote:
“He has learned his lesson. He knows now that as soon as she steps out of his hotel room, he is on.”
The major issue for the Liberals was patronage. Trudeau had recommended the appointment of over 200 Liberals to patronage posts just before he left office. Canadians were enraged by this, and Turner was advised that he should have the appointments withdrawn but he chose not to. Instead, he appointed another 70 Liberals to patronage posts, citing a written agreement with Trudeau.
Knowing that Mulroney was going to set up a patronage machine if he won the election, Turner attempted to attack Mulroney over it during the televised debate, but Mulroney turned the tables, bringing up the appointments of Turner and Trudeau. Mulroney demanded that Turner apologize to the country for not cancelling the appointments.
Mulroney’s attacks on Turner during the debate over the appointments was seen as the end of Turner’s chances for staying on as prime minister. After the debate, the public rated Turner’s performance as 4.2 out of 10, while Mulroney rated 6.8 out of 10 and Ed Broadbent rated 6.4.
This year was notable not only for being the first time there was a French language debate, but also because there was a third debate, exclusively about women’s issues. Prior to the debate, all the parties began to release social policy platforms.
The Conservatives would offer a spouse allowance to all eligible widows, funding for day care and it would restore the indexing of the old age pension to the cost of living. Mulroney would state quote:
“It is a national disgrace that we have betrayed a generation of Canadians. It is insensitive and wrong to expect a widow at age 61 or 62 to return to the workplace. We are determined that growing old in Canada will not mean growing poor. No longer can child care be considered a luxury of the rich or support program of the poor.”
The Liberals continued to struggle on the campaign trail, with many voters seeing Turner as a relic from the 1960s. Even Trudeau did not campaign for Turner, only making appearances to support other Liberal candidates. He still proved to be popular among many. In Montreal on Aug. 31, he greeted a large group of people who pushed to touch him or the rose on his lapel. One woman would say quote:
“We’re very friendly Mr. Trudeau.”
Trudeau would respond, quote:
“Well, that’s fine but you’re pushing a hell of a lot.”
Even when he spoke later that day, his speech did not mention the election at all.
The next day Trudeau would appear at a rally with Jean Chretien, who Turner had defeated in the leadership race. Chretien would say at the rally, quote:
Turner would see his popularity fall from 39 per cent in June to 33 per cent in August. When Turner took over, he had the support of 49 per cent of committed voters. At the same time, a poll found that the Liberals had the support of two-thirds of Quebec, half of Ontario and one-third of the West. As for Mulroney, he rose from 22 per cent to 29 per cent. By the final Gallup poll, the Progressive Conservatives were leading the Liberals in Quebec. In all regions of the country, the Conservatives were leading, with 50 per cent of decided voters favouring the Progressive Conservatives, and only 28 per cent saying the same of the Liberals. As the Liberals declined in popularity, the NDP attempted to court their disillusioned voters.
By the end of August, several Liberal candidates were removing Turner’s name from the election literature. One party worker would state quote:
“We’re not exactly pushing the Turner connection.”
By the beginning of August, Turner had fired his campaign director Bill Lee, although Lee had said he had quit in frustration after meeting with Turner days previous. Lee would be replaced with Keith Davey, a veteran of six Liberal campaigns. Turner would say quote:
“I wanted a change in the orientation of the campaign’s direction, so I asked Mr. Davey to replace Mr. Lee.”
Lee in contrast said that Turner ignored his advice, so he resigned.
The bad news continued the day after the firing for Turner when the federal information commissioner announced he was taking Turner to court over the Prime Minister’s refusal to make public the salaries of tap cabinet appointees.
A light hearted incident would occur on Aug. 10 when Turner had coffee poured on his pants accidently by a waiter. Turner quickly went to the washroom, the women’s washroom, where he removed the pants. As it turned out, two members of the press were in the bathroom and came out smiling. Inside, the prime minister was standing in his underwear. After the pants were cleaned by Turner’s wife, he emerged from the bathroom with his coat covering the wet area of his pants.
Conservative campaigners had the opposite problem, of not trying to coast to election day. Bobbie Sparrow, who was running in Calgary South, would state, quote:
“We’re running this campaign as though we’re only six votes ahead.”
On the campaign trail, Mulroney was greeted by large crowds were excited to meet this new man who was now leading the Progressive Conservatives. In Prince Alberta in early July, he spoke in front of a crowded Elks Hall, praising John Diefenbaker, who had died five years earlier. Mulroney had known Diefenbaker as a young man in university, but he had also helped orchestrate the ousting of Diefenbaker from the party leadership in 1967. Mulroney would state quote:
“I am going to strive mightily to give this country the kind of leadership that John Diefenbaker gave his party.”
In Quebec during one stop, 250 Quebecers endured a two-hour delay and waited until midnight for Mulroney’s plane to land. Mulroney would tell the crowd, quote:
“The election is not over, not by a long shot. We still have a lot of work to do.”
During one stretch of five days in August, 15,000 people would hear Mulroney speak, with crowds ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 people. When a heckler appeared at one campaign stop, Mulroney was quick on his feet and would state, quote:
In the Sept. 4, 1984, election, the Liberals suffered a debate unseen since the Arthur Meighen Conservative collapse of 1921. The party would lose an astounding 95 seats to finish with 40, only 10 more than the New Democratic Party led by Ed Broadbent, who only lost one seat. At the time, it was the worst showing for the Liberals in their entire history. At the time it was also one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a governing party in a Westminster System. In all, 11 members of Turner’s cabinet were defeated in the election. Turner would win his seat in Vancouver though. The Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney picked up 111 seats, to finish with 211 seats, the most seats ever won by a party in Canadian history, and his party would have the second largest percentage of seats in Canadian history, after only the 1958 Progressive Conservatives.
In every single province, the Progressive Conservatives had the majority of seats, as well as all the territories, the only time such a thing has ever happened in Canadian history. The Conservatives won every seat in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alberta, and in Ontario took 67 seats, well above the 14 won by the Liberals. Almost all the seats won by the Liberals in the province were in Metro Toronto. The most surprising outcome was the 58 seats won by the Conservatives in Quebec, where the Liberals only won 17. For 70 years, the Liberals had mostly dominated federal politics in Quebec. The Liberals would not win a majority of seats in Quebec again until 2015.
Mulroney would state in his victory speech, quote:
“Our object and our mandate is to create jobs and to get the economy of Canada moving again.”
Turner would at least win his riding to re-enter the House of Commons, defeating Bill Clarke by only 3,000 votes.
He would say in his concession speech, quote:
“The people of Canada, coast to coast, have spoken and the people are always right. Our defeats are but the stepping stones of victory.”
One of Turner’s last acts as Prime Minister was to welcome Pope John Paul II to Quebec City. While he had lost the election to Mulroney, the new prime minister had decided to not attend the welcoming ceremony, stating quote:
“One Prime Minister is enough.”
Information from Maclean’s, CBC, Wikipedia, Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal
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