François-Philippe Champagne suddenly seems everywhere all at once.
When he is not cheerleading for Canada’s participation in NASA’s Artemis II mission to the moon, as he did in Houston on Monday, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry is ordering the country’s wireless providers to cut cellphone rates or face his wrath, as he did last week in approving Quebecor’s purchase of Freedom Mobile.
When he is not wooing auto and battery producers to invest in Canada’s electric-vehicle supply chain, securing promises for multibillion-dollar plants, the diminutive Quebec MP – nicknamed the Energizer Bunny – is cracking down on Chinese ownership of this country’s critical minerals amid efforts to “decouple” the North American economy from China.
Mr. Champagne switches with ease from playing good cop to bad cop, in both official languages, steadily building a case that he – rather than Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland or even former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney – is the best person to lead the Liberals after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau steps down.
That could be sooner than many think.
Mr. Trudeau these days looks less like a Prime Minister running for re-election than a Liberal Leader trying to prove to members of his own caucus and party that he still deserves their trust. The year-old supply-and-confidence agreement between the Liberals and New Democratic Party has so far allowed Mr. Trudeau to govern without the threat of a putsch hanging over his head. But for how long?
In a weekend interview on the Radio-Canada program Tout le monde en parle, Mr. Trudeau insisted he intends to lead the Liberals in the next election, jokingly referring to Guy A. Lepage’s 19-season run (so far) as the host of the ever-popular Sunday night Quebec talk show. He offered a spirited defence of deficit spending, insisting his government’s green-economy subsidies will bring growth and jobs. He accused the show’s skeptical co-host of preaching austerity.
“Do you really want to live in a country where one can guess your parents’ salary based on the quality of your smile?” Mr. Trudeau quipped when Mr. Lepage questioned the $13-billion Ottawa plans to spend over five years to provide free dental care for low-income Canadians without private insurance.
It was a good performance – albeit on friendly turf, and without any questions related to Mr. Trudeau’s widely panned (in Quebec) appointment of an anti-Islamophobia representative in January. Overall, Mr. Trudeau seemed eager to confront Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on the campaign trail – if only his own party gives him the chance. Revelations about Chinese electoral interference continue to dog Mr. Trudeau. His prickly response to the controversy worries many Liberals.
What’s more, Mr. Trudeau’s plaidoirie in favour of activist government does not sound as persuasive to as many Canadians in 2023 as it might have in 2015, after years of Conservative restraint. A near doubling of the federal debt since then, amid surging interest costs, has more and more voters concerned about federal finances.
Enter the irrepressible Mr. Champagne, a business-friendly Liberal who can read a balance sheet. The 52-year-old lawyer, who is also being wooed to run for the leadership of the struggling Quebec Liberal Party, is winning over converts one handshake at a time. And few politicians on the circuit these days can out-handshake Mr. Champagne.
In a federal cabinet with few economic heavyweights, he has become the indispensable minister who can talk to CEOs in their language. While Ms. Freeland’s star shines less brightly than it once did, and amid speculation she may be seeking the top job at NATO, Mr. Champagne has been eclipsing fellow potential leadership contenders, like Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand, in the public eye. And unlike Mr. Carney, who has never held public office or known the drudgery of the rubber-chicken circuit, Mr. Champagne appears to have been born into politics.
The odds of him succeeding Mr. Trudeau may not, at first blush, appear that strong. The Liberals have a tradition of alternating between francophone and anglophone leaders. The current Liberal base leans much further to the left than Mr. Champagne, who eschews identity politics. He would likely need to sign up a lot of new, and centrist, party members to win a leadership vote.
Still, the path to a Grit victory in the next election may well lie in persuading “blue Liberals,” weary of Mr. Trudeau’s leftward drift, to stick with the party or, if they have already left, to return to the fold. Mr. Champagne seems uniquely qualified for the job.
Anyone who watched his performance in Houston would know better than to count him out. Can anyone imagine Ms. Freeland or Mr. Carney conveying that much enthusiasm for this country, its people and its future? Even the Americans were impressed.
“Wow. He pumped me up,” NASA official Joe Acaba, the event’s emcee, declared. “That was nice.”
Canada’s Energizer Bunny strikes again.