The Debate that Changed Debates 

Thrirty-three years after their historic 1984 campaign debate, Brian Mulroney and John Turner share a collegial moment at a Speaker’s reception marking the 150th anniversary of the first sitting of Parliament in November 2017. House of Commons photo


Leaders’ debates have become heavily coached and prepped affairs, exhaustively rehearsed in mock match-ups that produce moments choreographed down to cocked eyebrows and eye-rolls. It’s a convention of campaign culture that arose largely as a result of one riveting, game-changing exchange in the 1984 campaign that Canadian candidates have spent years trying to repeat or, more often, avoid.

Peter Mansbridge 

The membership of the living Former Prime Ministers of Canada Club isn’t that big. It’s seven names—Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper—and it’s rare that they all gather in the same room. It’s an exclusive club, to be sure, with some bitter old rivalries on that list that have lasted decades. 

But in June of this year, they were all together in Ottawa, championing the same cause. It was a special dinner to celebrate one member’s 90th birthday. John Napier Turner, once the darling of the Liberal Party, the “crown prince” they called him during the Pierre Trudeau days, the man who would in 1984 become the country’s 17th prime minister, if only for a couple of months. It had been a long-anticipated run-up—as justice minister, finance minister and leader-in-waiting, in exile on Bay Street—to a reign that came crashing to the ground before it really started.

Sitting in the room ready to say a few words about their fellow club member were Messrs. Clark, Chrétien and Martin. Sending video wishes were Ms. Campbell along with Messrs. Mulroney and Harper (a future member, Justin Trudeau, made a guest appearance). Each chose their words carefully but the bottom line was the same; they were full of praise and kind comments and you could tell John Turner was moved. It was one of those nice, non-partisan evenings most of us find hard to associate with Ottawa anymore. 

There were a few good laughs, and one moment that brought the house down. The Mulroney video was vintage MBM, as his friends call him. There he was, probably in his Montreal law office, dressed impeccably, everything in place. Perfectly ironed shirt, sharp tie, gold cuff links, I’m sure. And then, out came that booming baritone with his tribute. I didn’t take notes, so I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was:

“John, I wish I was there. I had every intention of being there. But when I told Mila I had to go to Ottawa, she was not happy. She told me we had long ago made other commitments for the evening. I tried to make the case, but the harder I tried the more firm she got. It was an argument I lost.”

And then, in the way only great storytellers can pull off, there was that Mulroney pause before the punch line.

“John,” he said, waiting another beat for impact, “John, I had no option.”

He knew the crowd—full of pols and journos who’d been there in the 1980s—would thunder. And they did. They remembered. How could they forget?

Back in the summer of 1984, with that year’s election campaign in its final weeks, the Liberals were in trouble. Turner, who had started off with a lead thanks to his June leadership convention victory, suffered gaffe after gaffe. There were allegations of “bum patting”, rusty performances at the podium and muddled policy announcements. It all seemed to open the door for Mulroney. But with the TV leaders’ debate still to come, the Liberals were hoping for a strong showing to hang on to power. Turner was experienced, while Tory leader Mulroney, they thought, was not.

In Canada, TV debates had started in 1968 and usually, it was all about the optics and expectations. In the first one, Robert Stanfield looked old, Pierre Trudeau didn’t. Trudeaumania won. In 1979, people expected the inexperienced and often clumsy Clark would stumble and bumble before the cameras. He didn’t, and he won. In 1980, the Liberals had an early, major lead in the polls after Clark’s minority government had fallen over an unpopular budget. Trudeau declined to participate in a debate on the grounds that Canadians had seen him, Clark and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent debate less than a year earlier. It was really an effort to avoid any unforced errors, and it worked. The lead held and Trudeau cruised back to power. Which brings us to the key moment of the 1984 debate, if not the entire campaign.

As Trudeau was slipping out the door of government and before he handed the keys to Turner, he ordered up more than 200 patronage appointments for Liberal loyalists, forcing Turner to either cancel them or make them. He not only didn’t cancel them, he added another 70 of his own. So, on the evening of July 25, six weeks before the September 4th election, when the English-language leaders’ debate turned to patronage, Mulroney had plenty of ammunition in targeting what looked like Turner’s double weakness in both doing Trudeau’s bidding and then failing to take responsibility for it.

MULRONEY: “You owe the Canadian people a profound apology.”

Turner was on his heels but still, he could have let it pass. He didn’t, instead responding chin first.

TURNER: “I have told you and I told the Canadian people Mr. Mulroney that …..” and then came the big mistake, “I had no option.

MULRONEY: “You had an option, sir, you could have said, ‘I’m not going to do it, this is wrong for Canada and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.’ You had an option to say no, and you chose to say yes, yes to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party. That’s not good enough for Canadians.”

“I had no option,” Turner repeated lamely.

“That is an avowal of failure,” Mulroney interrupted. “That is a confession of non-leadership, and this country needs leadership. You had an option, sir, you could have done better.”

Game, set, match Mulroney. And the largest majority government in the country’s history followed weeks later, with the Conservatives winning 211 seats in what was then a 262-seat House.

For all the hype that often surrounds media coverage of debates, it’s actually pretty rare for signature moments like that one to happen. I’ve seen all the debates since the first one in 1968 and while each has been worth watching if for no other reason than to introduce the leaders in a somewhat unfiltered way to the voters, few, other than ’84, have contained moments that actually framed the election. Ironically, the same two men four years later had perhaps the second-best debate moment when Turner challenged Mulroney’s patriotism over the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. 

“I believe you have sold us out,” Turner told Mulroney, tapping into a deep- seated fear among some voters of Canada’s economy and culture being taken over by the Americans. Mulroney was rocked but recovered in the final weeks of the campaign.

Of the many debates since the classic Mulroney-Turner battles of the 1980s, there has always been much excitement in the days leading up to debate night, often by the media seemingly desperate for a “moment”. You know the lines they use. I sure do, having used them enough myself: “the big mistake”, “the knockout punch”. But history has proven that, in the event, those moments
rarely happen.

Perhaps part of the reason is the leaders now train, in some cases, for months to have the right words and phrases to handle their opponents. What to say and perhaps more importantly, what not to say. Image consultants suggest what to wear, where to look, when to smile, when to frown. Stand-ins are brought in to play rivals as staged debates are played out trying to anticipate what might happen and how best to counter attacks from the
other side. 

In some cases, potential lines are tested, even focus-grouped to see how an audience will react. As a result, when the real action starts it’s sometimes almost comical because it’s so obvious that certain moves or phrases or looks were pre-programmed. What Mulroney and Turner proved was that prep is important but nothing beats being natural and reacting with exactly what you really believe. It can be dangerous—disastrous, even—but it can also produce the
winning moment.

When Brian Mulroney dropped his one-liner on the crowd in Ottawa in June of this year, I quickly glanced at John Turner. That line in its original form had been devastating. It had arguably cost him his dream all those years ago, but there he was on this night laughing just like the rest of the room. It had taken 35 years, but in that instant at least, the pain
was gone.

That, too, was a moment. A good one. For everyone. 

Contributing Writer Peter Mansbridge, longtime anchor and chief correspondent of CBC’s The National, is now producing documentaries and appearing as a public speaker. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.