Last Wednesday, in the packed Hart House Music Room, former Prime Minister John Turner held court, joined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development trade and agriculture director Ken Ash.
Simone Chambers, director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, moderated the event, which drew over 200 people. The Hart House Debates Committee organized the event.
Turner was Liberal prime minister for three months in 1984, having held many cabinet posts under prior Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.
Turner began the evening by expressing concerns about the political process under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“Democracy does not happen by accident. We Canadians are taking it for granted… Parliament today is neutralized and powerless by the prime minister’s office and party discipline, all around,” he said.
Citing his work on the John A. Macdonald bicentenary campaign, Turner said he was looking forward to the eight-hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta, a thirteenth century English charter — the principles of which he hopes will help correct political ambivalence.
“Let’s go back to Magna Carta, [and] start where democracy starts — namely, at the grassroots… We Canadians have got to get off our butts and restore democracy,” he said.
In the course of the discussion, the panelists commented on many past and current issues.
Turner expressed skepticism of the new Canada-EU deal, saying that he would have gone back to the drawing board on the North American Free Trade Agreement, an agreement signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, had he won the premiership in 1988.
“I actually read the agreement, which was an advantage over Mulroney, who hadn’t read it,” he said.
Income inequality was also among the subjects raised, with Ash coming out strongly favouring progressive taxes.
“You want to redistribute income from those that have it to those that don’t? You tax them,” Ash said.
Ash and Turner also discussed foreign policy, economic diversification, Canada-US relations, and the Keystone XL pipeline.
“[Y]ou’ve got to find a good job that’s fun, as well as being rewarding. You’ve got to work hard at it. You’ve got to get along with everyone you’re working with and for and make it happen,” Turner said when the panelists were asked to give advice to the young people present.
For his part, Ash cited the job growth in smaller startups as an indication of where students might look to find employment. “Don’t rule out at all the possibility of working for yourself,” he said.
Kaleem Hawa, president of the Hart House Debates Committee, said that the event was a major success.
“That is the most packed I’ve seen a room at Hart House in my three years at university,” Hawa said.
Turner said that he spoke at Hart House to reach out to the younger generation about his political experience.
“I believe in education. I believe that it’s important that I share some of my experience with the next generation as to why they ought to become involved in public life, and ensure that democracy is restored in Canada,” he said.