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Mulroney battles Turner on free trade in 1988

From track star to Rhodes Scholar, destiny seemed to have paved a golden path for John Napier Turner. Born with good looks and charisma to spare, the bilingual lawyer entered politics in the 1960s touted as Canada's answer to John F. Kennedy. But it would take more than two decades and a self-imposed political exile before he would have a chance to claim his crown as prime minister.

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It's been nearly four years since Brian Mulroney's Conservatives decimated the Liberal Party in the 1984 federal election. John Turner has not forgotten. Angered over the government's efforts to push through a contentious free trade agreement, Turner sparks another election - and another chance to take on his old foe on the debate floor. In this CBC Television clip, the cautious Liberal leader displays a rarely seen passion that helps to restore some of his party's fortunes in the coming election.
• With Mulroney banking on the success of his much hyped trade deal, Turner entered the Oct. 25, 1988, English debates with momentum. The issue had dominated much of the French language debates the night before and Turner wasn't about to let up.
• In the waning minutes of the debate he confronts Mulroney head on, telling him "you've sold us out" with "one signature of a pen." Hands on his hips, a flabbergasted Mulroney attempts to dismiss the accusations, but to little effect. To onlookers and journalists it's clear that Turner has won the dramatic rematch.

• The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) became the central issue of the 1988 federal election, thanks in large part to Turner's fierce opposition. In July, with Mulroney nearing the end of his first term, Turner asked the Liberal-dominated Senate to block a vote on the deal.
• The move forced the dissolving of Parliament the next day, and was criticized as a misuse of the unelected Senate. Turner defended his move, telling the CBC's Bill Cameron "I believe if Canadians are given a choice to vote on this trade deal, people will reject it."

• During the three-month campaign, the Liberal leader hammered away at the Conservatives on the deal. Public opinion polls showed the lead swinging back and forth between Turner and Mulroney.

• To help shore up support with voters, the Prime Minister enlisted U.S. President Ronald Reagan who said the deal was crucial for the ongoing economic relationship of the two countries.
• Turner called the endorsement, which came a week before the November election, an example of "a lame duck trying to rescue a dead duck."
• In spite of Turner's renewed passion, Brian Mulroney's Tories triumphed again at the polls on Nov. 21, 1988, winning a majority 169 seats. The Liberals won 83, while the New Democratic Party won a record 43 seats under Ed Broadbent.

• Political analysts speculated that the Tories were re-elected thanks to an NDP-Liberal split among anti free trade voters.
• Mulroney's win marked the first time since Liberal Louis St-Laurent that a leader had won two consecutive majority governments.
• Though he lost, Turner more than doubled his party's seats in Parliament, from 38 to 83. He also won the popular vote in five provinces, including Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and the Northwest Territories.

• The FTA received final parliamentary approval on Dec. 30, after being passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Reagan on Sept. 28.
• Mulroney would remain prime minister for another five years, stepping down to make way for Kim Campbell in 1993.
• Turner would remain as Liberal leader for nearly two more years, until resigning in 1990. He remained as an MP for Vancouver-Quadra until 1993, when he exited for politics for good.

• Turner comments on free trade ten years on in this 1999 interview with Michael Enright.

Medium: Television
Program: News Special
Broadcast Date: Oct. 25, 1988
Guests: Brian Mulroney, John Turner
Panellist: Doug Small
Duration: 4:36

Last updated: October 1, 2014

Page consulted on October 1, 2014

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