In the same week and in the same city of Montreal, two men declared their intentions to run for the leadership of their parties. Both are Liberals and both are front-runners in their respective races, but you would be hard-pressed to find more similarities between Justin Trudeau and Philippe Couillard.
One has a great deal of charisma but very little substance. The other has some charisma – and a great deal of substance.
“In his nine-minute opening statement,” wrote the Montreal Gazette’s Don Macpherson, “Couillard said more about where he stands than Trudeau did in his 29-minute speech the previous evening.”
Even though former prime minister Brian Mulroney, a fine connoisseur of politics, warned several interviewers that one should not underestimate this “talented young man,” Mr. Trudeau’s candidacy announcement was desperately filled with platitudes. My favourite line: “The Liberal Party didn’t create Canada. Canada created the Liberal Party.”
Since he is widely suspected of being an intellectual lightweight, he – or his speechwriter – should have made an effort to line up at least a couple of interesting remarks about where he wants to take his party. But true to himself – when was the last time Mr. Trudeau had something original to bring to the public debate? – he relied on his celebrity status and the photo-op provided by his lovely young family.
Mr. Couillard, on the other hand, did not need a speechwriter. The early favourite for the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party weighed in on many issues as soon as he announced his candidacy.
He was sober but firm in his criticism of the Parti Québécois government’s first decisions. He emphasized his belief in social justice and his opposition to the identity politics of the PQ. And he said he chose federalism “not because it was ‘profitable’ [as former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa used to say], nor because it was a lesser evil or the product of history, but for reasons of principles, because federalism leads us to larger horizons.”
The major benefit of the Quebec Liberal Party’s surprising performance in the last election (it actually came within an inch of winning, with only 0.76 percentage points less of the popular vote than the PQ and 50 seats versus the PQ’s 54) is that it can attract interesting leadership candidates.
The three former ministers who have already entered the race are credible candidates, although former finance minister Raymond Bachand lacks charisma and former transportation minister Pierre Moreau lacks experience. Mr. Couillard, a former health minister and a fine public speaker, is by far the most popular.
According to a recent Léger Marketing poll, he’s the choice of 34 per cent of Liberal supporters, while Mr. Bachand and Mr. Moreau lag behind with 13 and 7 per cent support.
Mr. Couillard, a neurosurgeon who is returning to politics after four years in the private sector, has the backing of the party’s most seasoned organizers – a huge advantage, since the future leader will be chosen by the delegates rather than by the rank and file.
He is not without liabilities, though. His image was marred by the fact that in 2008, he negotiated his contract with his future employer – Persistence Capital Partners, which owns a network of private medical clinics – while he was still health minister. At the time, this was viewed as bordering on a conflict of interest, but it won’t be held against him long, as the firm never dealt with the government and Mr. Couillard’s dealings were authorized by the Executive Council.