Canada’s political leaders are now holding debates leading up to the October 2019 federal election. However, the mother of all election debates occurred in 1988 over free trade between Canada and the US. Brian Mulroney had defeated John Turner and the Liberals in the 1984 election. Mulroney scored a coup in the televised debate that year by attacking Turner for making a series of patronage appointments left him by the departing Pierre Trudeau. Candidate Mulroney had promised never to pursue free trade with the US, but as prime minister he pivoted and negotiated just such a deal. By 1988, Turner sensed Canadians’ unease about it and decided to make free trade the centrepiece issue of the election. In October 1988, Mulroney, Turner and NDP leader Ed Broadbent held televised debates in French and English. For the debate on October 25, Turner had carefully rehearsed his attack on Mulroney. Their exchange has become legendary in Canadian political folklore.
“I happen to believe that you sold us out”—John Turner
“You do not have a monopoly on patriotism”—Brian Mulroney
TURNER: The prime minister hasn’t answered this really in five hours of debate. He hasn’t answered why he changed his own personal mind against a bilateral agreement with the United States. The Americans can’t believe their good luck. No wonder the Senate of the United States passed this deal in one day, no wonder the House of Representatives passed it in one day, no wonder President Reagan says that this is the fulfillment of the American dream.
We gave away our energy. We gave away our investment. We sold out our supply management and agriculture. And we have left hundreds of thousands of workers vulnerable because of the social programs involved, because of the minimum wages that we will have to start to compare and harmonize, because of the fact that they are in vulnerable industries. And really I think the time has come, after five hours of debate, for the prime minister to really answer those questions and tell us why he is where he is and why he did not pull out when he did not get what he thought he should have got.
MULRONEY: I have answered, Mr. Turner, every conceivable question that has been put to me both in English and in French directly on national television, and I don’t think I need any lessons from you, sir, about answering questions . . .
TURNER: I think the Canadian people have a right to know why, when your primary objective was to get unfettered and secured access into the American market, we didn’t get it. Why you didn’t put clauses in to protect our social programs in this negotiation . . . Why did that not happen? Why also did we get a situation where we surrendered our entire energy policy to the United States, something they’ve been trying to achieve since 1956? Why did we abandon our farmers? Why did we open our capital markets so that a Canadian bank can be bought up and we don’t have reciprocity in the American market at all? Why did you remove any ability to control the Canadian ownership of our business?
These are questions that Canadians deserve to have an answer to and we have not had an opportunity in six hours to deal with them in the way that would make you come out of your shell.
MULRONEY: Well, Mr. Turner, you’re about two feet away from me. I’ve been with you for six hours. I’ve responded to everything that you had to say. I responded openly to all questions by Canada’s most distinguished journalists in English and French. There has been a most vigorous and I think probably unprecedented exchange of views. And yet, notwithstanding that, simply because you have an idea that only you have a proper interpretation of a given agreement, it’s difficult for anyone to persuade you of the opposite. And so you ought not to blame me or blame Mr. Broadbent for that or blame the journalists . . .
TURNER: I happen to believe you have sold us out. I happen to believe that, once you—
MULRONEY: Mr. Turner, just one second—
TURNER: Once any region—
MULRONEY: You do not have a monopoly on patriotism—
MULRONEY: —and I resent your implication that only you are a Canadian. I want to tell you that I come from a Canadian family and I love Canada, and that is why I did it, to promote prosperity.
TURNER: Once any country yields its economic levers—
MULRONEY: Don’t you impugn my motives or anyone else’s—
TURNER: Once a country yields its energy—
MULRONEY: We have not done it.
TURNER: Once a country yields its agriculture—
MULRONEY: Wrong again.
TURNER: Once a country yields itself to a subsidy war with the United States—
MULRONEY: Wrong again.
TURNER: On terms of definition then, the political ability of this country to remain as an independent nation, that is lost forever and that is the issue of this election, sir.
MULRONEY: Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner. Let me tell you something, sir. This country is only about 120 years old, but my own father 55 years ago went himself as a labourer with hundreds of other Canadians and with their own hands, in northeastern Quebec, they built a little town, schools and churches, and they in their own way were nation-building. In the same way that the waves of immigrants from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe rolled back the prairies and in their own way, in their own time, they were nation-building because they loved Canada. I today, sir, as a Canadian, believe genuinely in what I am doing. I believe it is right for Canada. I believe that in my own modest way I am nation-building because I believe this benefits Canada and I love Canada. I, today, sir, as a Canadian, believe genuinely in what I am doing. I believe it is right for Canada. I believe that, in my own modest way, I am nation-building because I believe this benefits Canada and I love Canada.
TURNER: I admire your father for what he did. My grandfather moved into British Columbia. My mother was a miner’s daughter there. We are just as Canadian as you are, Mr. Mulroney, but I will tell you this. You mentioned 120 years of history. We built a country east and west and north. We built it on an infrastructure that deliberately resisted the continental pressure of the United States. For 120 years we’ve done it. With one signature of a pen, you’ve reversed that, thrown us into the north-south influence of the United States and will reduce us, I am sure, to a colony of the United States because when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow.
MULRONEY: Mr. Turner, the document is cancellable on six months notice. Be serious. Be serious.
TURNER: Cancellable? You are talking about our relationship with the United States—
MULRONEY: A commercial document that is cancellable on six months notice.
TURNER: Commercial document? That document relates to treaty. It relates to every facet of our lives. It’s far more important to us than it is to the United States.
MULRONEY: Mr. Turner.
TURNER: Far more important.
MULRONEY: Please be serious.
TURNER: Well, I am serious and I’ve never been more serious in all my life.
Pundits believed that Turner won the debate. The Conservatives fell in the polls and they undertook an aggressive advertising campaign to discredit Turner. Mulroney won the election with a reduced majority.
Source: Encounter 88 – verbatim transcript of televised leaders’ debate (25 October 1988, StenoTran Services), pp: 110–24. Obtained from the Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada.
Video Clip: Mulroney battles Turner on free trade in 1988, CBC Archives.
More information: Election 1988, The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Photo: CBC Archives.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.