Garneau suggests, but doesn't hammer home, the Trudeau comparison

John Geddes on the launch of a leadership campaign

The mood in the National Press Theatre here in Ottawa this afternoon was peculiar for Montreal MP Marc Garneau’s news conference on the official launch today of his bid for the Liberal party leadership.

Peculiar in the sense that Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters are usually pretty direct when it comes to prodding visitors to the NPT on any evident weakness in the political or policy messages they happen to bring, but the tone toward Garneau today was, I thought, somewhat deferential.

This must be the result of the awkward imbalance between Garneau’s exalted status as Canada’s first astronaut and his underdog position in the leadership race. This is a guy who, as one reporter mentioned, already has schools named after him, and yet enters this contest far behind Justin Trudeau, who doesn’t.

Garneau seems acutely aware of how the respect that attaches to his name far outstrips the excitement that attends his presence in a room. Evidently determined not to live up to his advance billing as a little dry, his manner today was notably and consistently forceful. If he can’t be exciting, it seems, he’ll at least be emphatic.

As well, he repeatedly mentioned his accomplishments—not just the cool part about travelling in space, which is not so obviously germane to political leadership, but running the country’s space program, which arguably might indicate more about how he’d pilot his party or even the country. I asked him if he planned to explicitly contrast this sort of experience with Trudeau’s comparatively thin résumé.

“I will talk about my strengths and my strengths are proven. That is what I have to do and that is what I will clearly do. There will be no modesty here,” he answered.

“I will talk specifically about what I’ve done in the navy, what I’ve done in the space program, including being president of the Canadian Space Agency, where I managed on a yearly basis $300 million of your money, and I did it responsibly. I was in charge of  700 people. If you look at my record during those four years it was pretty impressive.”

It was too much to expect him to bluntly set all that against Trudeau’s pre-politics career as a schoolteacher. Or to mention that the frontrunner hasn’t actually held a major role in the Liberal opposition caucus, whereas the former spaceman has been the party’s critic for industry, science and technology (a natural slot) and has also served as its House leader.

Of course, none of that erases Trudeau’s unquestioned advantages in name recognition, performance skills and social-media impact. But Garneau repeatedly touched on the fact that five leadership debates are planned, scattered across the country, between next Jan. 20 and March 23, leading to the April 14 leadership vote. His plan is evidently to use those encounters to reel Trudeau in.

But how? Garneau was unwilling today to take direct aim at the man he must overtake, which is understandable, given that this is an intramural battle among Liberals. To make those debates decisive, though, he will have to risk offending some inside his party—and maybe even feeding anti-Trudeau ammunition to Tories and New Democrats—by unambiguously framing a choice that likely can’t be driven home any other way.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.