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Marc Garneau, left, and Justin Trudeau take part in a Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Marc Garneau, left, and Justin Trudeau take part in a Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Why Garneau can poke Trudeau with a sharper stick than other candidates Add to ...

Marc Garneau was likely not surprised that Justin Trudeau rejected his challenge of a one-on-one debate. There was just no upside for the way-ahead-in-frontrunner in the Liberal leadership race.

But it was worth the effort. Of all the candidates, Mr. Garneau may have the best reason to strongly challenge the dauphin.

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Apart from Mr. Trudeau – who is raising vastly more money, is vastly better organized, is generating vastly larger crowds and no doubt is signing up vastly more supporters – there are two tiers of candidates in this race. The first consists of candidates who haven’t the slightest chance of winning, but who hope to raise their profile and perhaps secure a position in a future Trudeau cabinet. There are so many of them it’s not worth listing their names, except that we can report one of them, George Takach, dropped out Monday and threw his support to Mr. Trudeau, there being more than one way to curry favour.

The second tier consists of Mr. Garneau, a Quebec MP and former astronaut, and former Toronto-area MP Martha Hall Findlay. Neither of them has any realistic hope of winning, unless the Trudeau campaign wrecks on some unforeseen shoal. But they need to position themselves as the obvious second choice, just in case.

On Monday, Mr. Garneau challenged Mr. Trudeau to a one-on-one debate. The charismatic member for Papineau, in the disgruntled opinion of the member for Westmount-Ville-Marie, should be challenged on his largely policy-free campaign and lack of experience, either in politics or life.

“The leadership of the Liberal Party is too important a position to be handed to an untested candidate who is hiding behind a carefully crafted public relations campaign,” Mr. Garneau declared.

Smart move. It boosts Mr. Garneau’s claim to second place, and promotes the perception that Ms. Hall Findlay is running third – a place she probably sent herself to by claiming Mr. Trudeau was too much a child of privilege to empathize with the middle class. (By this logic, the working class must be unknowable to both of them.)

Mr. Trudeau tweeted his rejection of the debate challenge: “I respect all the candidates” running for the Liberal leadership, he said via Twitter, according to the Canadian Press.

“See you in Halifax, Marc. I hear there are 1 on 1s.”

There are multiple one-on-ones and threesomes at Liberal debates. Each lasts a few minutes.

Mr. Trudeau had no reason to accept the challenge: He would only be raising Mr. Garneau’s profile while putting himself at risk of a game-changing gaffe. The question is whether these jabs in any way damage Mr. Garneau’s chances of a senior cabinet position in a Trudeau government or of an equally august appointment. And the short answer is: It hardly matters.

The hard political truth is that Mr. Trudeau has virtually no hope of becoming prime minister in 2015. This is not to discount his political potential. It’s simply a fact that third parties to not as a rule vaunt to government in a single election. And the Liberal machine is either decrepit or defunct in much of the country. Rebuilding realistically involves getting the party back in the game in 2015, with a shot at government in 2019.

Mr. Garneau turned 64 last week. In 2019 he’ll be 70. That’s not too old to be in cabinet, but it’s hardly an asset. Unless the prospects for victory are exceedingly favourable in 2019, and unless Mr. Trudeau (assuming he is still leader, which is a good assumption) presses him to run with a solid offer of a senior portfolio, Mr. Garneau may decide to hang up the gloves.

Yes, that’s all a long way away and wildly speculative. But it’s how politicians calculate. And it’s why Mr. Garneau may be willing to poke Mr. Trudeau with a sharper stick than most other candidates. There may be little to gain, but there is even less to lose.

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