You had an option, sir

You had an option, sir

"You had an option, sir" (sometimes remembered as You had a choice, sir) was a phrase used by Brian Mulroney against John Turner during the English-language leaders debate in the 1984 Canadian federal election. The exchange is considered one of the great "knockout blows" in the history of political debate.


Pierre Trudeau retired as Prime Minister of Canada in June 1984 after polls showed that he would almost certainly be defeated by Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives in the next election. Trudeau's Liberals chose Turner, a former Cabinet minister under Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson, as their new leader.

Just four days after being sworn in, Turner called a general election for September, persuaded by internal polls showed the Liberals far ahead, even though he was not obligated to dissolve Parliament until 1985. However, this proved disastrous as Turner initially appeared rusty and old fashioned, using outmoded slang on several occasions, causing the Liberals to fall far behind in polls. He continued to speak of "make work programs" and made other gaffes that caused voters to see him as a relic from the past.

The campaign is best remembered for Mulroney's attacks on a raft of Liberal patronage appointments. In his final days in office, Trudeau had controversially appointed a flurry of Senators, judges, and executives on various governmental and crown corporation boards, widely seen as a way to offer "plum jobs" to loyal members of the Liberal Party. Turner had the right to recommend that Governor-General Jeanne Sauvé cancel the appointments--advice that Sauvé would have had to follow in accordance with Canadian constitutional practice. Despite overwhelming pressure to scuttle the appointments, he didn't do so. Instead, he proceeded to appoint several more Liberals to prominent political offices. Turner cited a written agreement which would see Trudeau retire early in return for the appointments being made. [Donaldson, p. 320; Newman, p. 71.]

Televised Debate

Ironically, Turner had planned to attack Mulroney over the patronage machine that the latter had allegedly set up in anticipation of victory. He launched what appeared to be the start of a blistering attack on Mulroney by comparing his patronage machine to that of the old Union Nationale in Quebec. However, Mulroney successfully turned the tables by pointing to the recent raft of Liberal patronage appointments. He demanded that Turner apologize to the country for making "these horrible appointments." Turner replied that "I had no option" except to let the appointments stand. Mulroney famously responded:

Turner froze and wilted under this withering riposte from Mulroney and could only repeat, "I had no option." Mulroney called Turner's admission "an avowal of failure" and "a confession of non-leadership." He told Turner, "You had an option, sir. You could have done better."

The exchange led most of the papers the next day, with most of them paraphrasing Mulroney's counterattack as "You had an option, sir--you could have said 'no.'"


Mulroney later disclosed to journalist Peter C. Newman that he did not know his "You had an option" response would be positively received as he was speaking it. He claimed, "At this point, I know there's been a dramatic, historic exchange, but I wasn't sure whether I had helped or hurt my case. I really wasn't. As the debate ended, I could see from the New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent's attitude that I had scored heavily." [Peter C. Newman, "The Secret Mulroney Tapes": Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister. Random House Canada, 2005, p. 81.]

Many observers believe that at this point, Mulroney clinched the election for the Tories, as it made Turner look weak, indecisive, and a carbon copy of Trudeau. The exchange is considered one of the great "knockout blows" in the history of political debate.Who?

After the televised debate, little else altered the course of the campaign. In the September election, the Tories won the biggest majority government in Federal Canadian history, while the Liberals lost 95 seats--the worst defeat at the time for a governing party at the federal level in Canada.


Some commentators have seen the incident as redefining the expectations for a leader's debate in Canada, with the leaders looking for opportunities to score a similar knockout punch, possibly to the detriment of substantive debate. [ [ Virtual Dave » Debate 2006 ] ] Accordingly, "You had an option, sir" has become a byword for a knockout punch in a leaders' debateFact|date=August 2008.

ee also

*List of political catch phrases


External links

* [ Video of the exchange] (from CBC archives)

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