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There's no democracy without debate, says former Canadian prime minister at ASU Thunderbird

John N. Turner, 17th prime minister of Canada, spoke at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management on Feb. 7 to share his views on leadership, resiliency and U.S.-Canada free trade. His keynote was part of Thunderbird's ongoing ThunderTalks speaker series.

Interspersed with engaging stories of his political and personal encounters with the likes of Robert F. Kennedy and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife (who was pregnant at the time with current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), Turner delivered a rousing keynote with one primary message: "Discussion, not diatribe, is the only way to ensure the continuity of democracy in our countries."

The Rhodes Scholar and Canadian Olympic team sprinter talked about the unique and peaceful relationship Canada and the United States have had, calling it “the best in the world” — a relationship that has created an environment suitable for sustained and sustainable cross-border trade.

“But this hasn’t been by accident,” he said. “We talk and listen to each other.”

Freedom to speak

One of the strongest points Turner emphasized was that members of Parliament and the U.S. Congress must not be constrained by bureaucracy or party dictates. He said he fears that parties work to control what their members can say, especially with proceedings being televised and, now, shown across a multitude of social-media channels.

“We need to restore the freedom to speak, without consequence from the party. Free them from party discipline, and [ministers of parliament and congressional members] will become more useful. Let them use their judgement. Isn’t that why they were elected by their constituents?” he said.

The next generation of politicians

Although he realizes that current insular thinking creates longer-term problems, the former prime minister said he is not without hope.

“I’m a champion of getting young people involved in the political process, regardless of party,” he said. “I do this as I’m a firm believer in the teaching, ‘To whom God has given some talent, let he or she give some back.’”

People can get involved by helping political campaigns, or even running for office, whether at the local, state/provincial or federal level, he said. Combined with the freedom to speak, he believes this will work to strengthen our democracy.

“If people have the feeling that their elected officials will have something to say and to represent them more effectively, more voters will get involved,” he said.

“But if talk becomes meaningless, there is no debate. And without debate, there is no democracy. Talk is essential to democracy. Don’t let it be taken away from you.”

Jeanine Jerkovic, economic director for the city of Surprise, coordinated the prime minister’s visit to Thunderbird, and the Consul General of Canada in Los Angeles provided promotional efforts.

Written by Tim Weaver, Thunderbird Executive Education