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Opinion Justin Trudeau’s star recruit in Quebec is the real deal

In the language of party politics, Steven Guilbeault is what you call a catch.

Quebec’s most prominent (and friendliest) environmentalist enjoys near celebrity status in his home province and has been courted for years by environment ministers seeking his imprimatur. Mr. Guilbeault has in turn played a savvy game of amassing his very own stockpile of political capital in preparation for the inevitable day when he would become a candidate himself.

That day has come. On Wednesday night, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his side, Mr. Guilbeault was formally nominated as the federal Liberal candidate in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie. For a beaming Mr. Trudeau, it was like 2015 all over again.

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For the Liberals, the 49-year-old Mr. Guilbeault projects the perfect image of a pragmatic environmentalist who seeks results over rhetoric. He is also on the record for opposing new oil pipelines, including the Trans Mountain expansion that Mr. Trudeau’s government recently reapproved. And while that would seem to make him a hypocrite or bad fit for the Liberals, Mr. Guilbeault has a reply at the ready: Would you rather the Conservatives win the next election?

Indeed, the Liberal pitch in much of Quebec during the coming campaign will be about blocking a Conservative victory. That might not do them much good in the Quebec City region and rural areas where the Conservatives appear to be riding high. But in the rest of the province, the Liberals aim to consolidate the anti-Tory vote that might otherwise go to the New Democrats, Bloc Québécois or Greens. This is particularly true in Laurier-Sainte-Marie.

The riding, which encompasses Montreal’s hip Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood and the city’s Gay Village, has not elected a Liberal since 1988. Former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe virtually owned Laurier-Sainte-Marie from his 1990 by-election win until his humiliating defeat in 2011 at the hands of the NDP’s Hélène Laverdière. She humiliated him again in 2015.

Now, however, Laurier-Sainte-Marie is up for grabs. Ms. Laverdière is not running again and the NDP’s poll numbers in Quebec have tanked under Leader Jagmeet Singh. The party has nominated Nima Machouf, the wife of a former Québec Solidaire MNA who represented the riding provincially. But Mr. Guilbeault’s main opponent could end up being the Green Party’s Jamil Azzaoui or the Bloc’s Michel Duchesne, neither of whom are as well known.

Star candidacies can backfire. But few newcomers to politics arrive on the scene with as much experience as Mr. Guilbeault. He has been a fixture in the Quebec media for two decades. He could give lessons to most practising politicians about how to communicate. He is always poised and calm, never pompous and armed with solid arguments to make his case. He is very smart and conscientious. He would make an excellent MP. Or cabinet minister.

His opposition to Trans Mountain would seem to disqualify him from a seat at the big table, the principle of cabinet solidarity being sacrosanct in our parliamentary system. But one senses that, postelection, Mr. Trudeau would have no problem bending the rules.

The question is whether Mr. Guilbeault is ready to make the necessary compromises that come with the exercise of power. By his very candidacy, he has shown he is. He chose to run for the Liberals, after all, because they’re the only party other than the Tories that has a chance of forming the government, even if the Liberal environmental platform falls short of his wish list.

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The Conservatives fully intend to force Mr. Guilbeault to account for his contradictions. They are already highlighting his opposition to a Quebec City infrastructure project – a proposed tunnel under the St. Lawrence River linking the provincial capital to its south shore suburbs – that needs federal funding to see the light of day. Expect the Conservatives to dig up plenty of clips from Mr. Guilbeault’s past, including the time, when he worked for Greenpeace, that he scaled Toronto’s CN Tower to unfurl a banner reading: “Canada and Bush: Climate Killers.”

Even some Liberals concede that Mr. Guilbeault could do the party serious damage if he turns out to be another Jody Wilson-Raybould, unwilling to bend to exigencies of politics. But the former justice minister who accused Mr. Trudeau and his entourage of putting pressure on her to drop criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin may not be the most apt comparison in this case.

Mr. Guilbeault’s move into politics parallels that of Nicolas Hulot, the megastar French environmentalist recruited with great fanfare by centrist President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 to become minister of the ecological transition. Barely a year later, Mr. Hulot abruptly resigned during an interview on live television, saying: “I don’t want to lie to myself any more.”

Hopefully, Mr. Guilbeault knows better than Mr. Hulot what he’s getting himself into.

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