And in this corner, Mark Carney?

Liberals hunting for a fiscally minded champion to take on Trudeau have the Bank of Canada governor in their sights

The right contender

Chris Young/CP Images

In all the hoopla surrounding this week’s official launch of Justin Trudeau’s bid for the Liberal leadership, something was missing. Just about every ranking Liberal, including those rushing to support Trudeau, declared a preference for an exciting, competitive race rather than a “coronation.” But where was Trudeau’s worthy adversary? The long-established pattern in the party, going back decades, has been for a champion representing its progressive wing to square off against a rival preferred by its business-oriented side. And if Trudeau fits the former role, there can be little doubt who would be the dream champion of the latter camp—Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.

Despite the absence of even the faintest hint of public confirmation from Carney, or any reliable source close to him, that the star central banker might be contemplating a jump into politics, that scenario is being feverishly discussed by Liberal insiders. “I don’t think there’s any question there are a lot of people in the party who would love it if he ran,” says Tim Murphy, a Toronto lawyer who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin. “The problem is no one knows if he’s actually interested.”

Murphy counts himself among Liberals who want the party to emphasize economic pragmatism and managerial experience as critical to refurbishing its tattered brand. They contrast themselves, in broad terms, with fellow Grits who are more preoccupied with progressive causes—especially, in recent years, environmental policy. Murphy argues that running mainly on those left-of-centre themes suggests “a longer path back to power,” battling the New Democrats to regain status as the main alternative to the Tories over two or three elections. The other possible path, he contends, would be “to present a centrist image based in economic competence,” competing head-on with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives right away, while aiming to marginalize Thomas Mulcair’s NDP as lacking “economic understanding and skills.”

Only a truly game-changing leader would make that sort of rapid up-the-middle drive back to electoral competitiveness seem plausible for the humbled, third-place Liberals. “Given how I’ve framed the challenge,” Murphy says, “that’s the reason you keep hearing his name. If you’re going to define the question that way, Mark Carney is the answer.”

The fact that so many Liberals are thrilled by Trudeau—who has only been an MP since 2008—and others tantalized by the prospect of Carney, who has never been in politics at all, is itself remarkable. After all, the party has only been out of power since 2006, yet not a single senior cabinet figure from its recent 13-year run in government has hung around to contend for the leadership. The MPs most often touted as possible challengers to Trudeau arrived in Ottawa after the era of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, or were second-tier players late in those glory years. Dominic LeBlanc, for instance, has held his New Brunswick seat since 2000, while Marc Garneau, the former astronaut, was first elected in his Montreal riding in 2008.

Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda analyzes routes to leadership in his new book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. He looks at how titans from Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill, along with some less-famous figures, got their jobs and changed history. Mukunda pays close attention to what he calls an organization’s “leadership filtration process.” So, for instance, big public companies tend to be led by highly filtered CEOs, tested repeatedly as they worked their way up through corporate bureaucracies. The leaders of entrepreneurial ventures are at the other extreme, often barely filtered at all.

Political parties can go either way when it comes to picking leaders. Mukunda notes that British prime ministers tend to be far more filtered—tested and scrutinized in Parliament—than U.S. presidents. In fact, even the least-experienced British prime minister in history, John Major, had served 11 years as an MP. Many U.S. presidents have moved into the White House boasting far less experience in elected office. Lincoln was a one-term congressman when he was picked to be the Republican presidential nominee in 1860. Choosing an unfiltered leader is sometimes the inadvertent result of circumstances, but it can also be the deliberate gamble of a party with little to lose. “The chosen person may fail,” Mukunda writes, “but failure is already the most likely outcome.”

Although he doesn’t survey Canadian politics, Mukunda said in an interview the unfiltered choices represented by Trudeau and Carney strongly suggest Liberals see themselves in a situation where “a conventionally capable leader just won’t be enough.” Trudeau’s charisma and his family name as the son of a famous former prime minister are what Mukunda calls “intensifiers”—traits that help leaders bypass filtration processes. For his part, Carney’s remarkable success as a central banker might appear to provide insight into how he would fare in politics, but Mukunda’s research suggests stellar performance in one field is a notoriously poor predictor of outcomes in another. “The skill set involved in being a really good central banker,” he says, “is extraordinarily different from that involved in being a really good elected politician.”

Still, the Liberal Party of Canada has a surprisingly successful track record when it comes to recruiting leaders from outside the ranks of seasoned politicians. John English, author of an award-winning two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau and himself a former Liberal MP, points to William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had been an MP for just three years, and then lost his seat, before he was chosen as Liberal leader in 1919, and went on to be quite a resilient prime minister. Pierre Trudeau had been an MP for less than three years, serving only briefly as justice minister, before his long run as PM began in 1968. (The Conservatives, for their part, chose Brian Mulroney as leader in 1983 before he’d ever sat in Parliament, and Mulroney won the largest majority in Canadian history the following year.) “By the time of the next election, Justin will have had seven years in Parliament,” English says. “Inexperience is a weak justification for opposing him.”

If he views Trudeau’s relatively short tenure in politics as perfectly in keeping with Liberal leadership tradition, English sees the absence of a strong pro-business voice in the race as a break with the party’s past. To win from the centre, he argues, the Liberals have needed figures who appealed to voters on both the right and left. That sometimes uneasy balance, or outright tension, has been reflected repeatedly in past leadership battles—Trudeau on the left beating Robert Winters on the right in 1968, John Turner on the right beating Chrétien on the left in 1984, and Chrétien beating businessman-turned-politician Paul Martin in 1990. (The centre-straddling winners frequently went on to confound pigeonholing, as when Turner veered left with his anti-free-trade stance in the 1988 election or Chrétien tacked right as a deficit-fighter in the mid-1990s.)

For now, with Justin Trudeau dominating the leadership buzz, business-friendly Liberals feel adrift. Doug Richardson, a lawyer and long-time Liberal organizer in Saskatoon, who in the past supported Turner and Martin, calls it “ridiculous” for his party to cede the chance to run against the Conservatives on economic issues in the next election. He points to Stephen Harper’s early cutting of the GST as bad fiscal policy, and contrasts Chrétien’s balancing of the books against Harper’s presiding over the return of red ink. But Richardson doesn’t so far see a Liberal contender, like those he’s backed before, with clear credentials to carry that message. “There was always an identified business candidate,” he says of past contests, then adds: “Of course, there’s always this chat about Mr. Carney.”


And in this corner, Mark Carney?

  1. It’s a fallacy to suggest that right-wing economics are the only economics.

    The reality is that in the post-war era, North Americans used centrist Keynesian economics which created modern living standards and the modern middle class. These economic policies acted as a counterweight to the boom-to-bust business cycle and got stellar results. They also allowed us to pay down most of our government debt: 135% debt/GDP to 35% US; 100% to 17% Canada.

    Over the past 30-years of anti-Keynesian free-market reforms, we had an economic tide that only raised the yachts (living standards were downsized for everyone else). GDP growth also steadily declined — the 2000s was the worst decade for growth since the 1930s. Inequality and debt soared (103% debt/GDP US; 85% Canada.) And the period ended in a global economic meltdown we have yet to recover from.

    So instead of rehashing failed free-market ideology that twice crashed and burned (the first time in 1929) we should embrace the mixed-market system that is still getting the best results in northern Europe.

    We’ve had enough tough Tory times from Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It’s time to move forward with centrist economic policy proven to work in the real world — and Liberals to be liberal again.

    • Agree with the last bit strongly. The RW of the liberal party creeps me out almost as much as the RW of the CPC – and i’m a liberal.
      Heard Martin Amis on the radio yesterday talking about the fact that Norwegians put up with and tolerate a gap of only a factor of 5 or 6 ?? to one in the income disparity between management and shop floor; this being an acceptable trade off for social cohesion. If true that’s quite remarkable. Of course far too many N. Americans could never admit that some small Scandinavian country was better off than numero uno …us!

      • Sorry to hear we creep you out pal, I guess I’ll just tear up my party card so that your team can be all hugs and kisses

        • You could try to convince me otherwise. Somehow i have the feeling you can’t be bothered. Nice thing about politics is you always have a choice.

        • Or you could come up with a leadership candidate that reflects your values.
          Now would be the time to do that.

  2. “…the star central banker might be contemplating a jump into politics,
    that scenario is being feverishly discussed by Liberal insiders. “I
    don’t think there’s any question there are a lot of people in the party
    who would love it if he ran,” says Tim Murphy”

    Good post JG Funny, very few of these party members are feverishly voicing their opinions on the party website; whereas Trudeau supporters certainly are – although i would say more soberly in that case.

    I find it ironic that it’s likely that people like Murphy hold the view that JT supporters like me[ i don’t not want a coronation either, so someone on the right of the party please step up] are being reckless in backing someone who is so unproven, particularly someone with no economic credentials. Ironic of course because that’s exactly what he proposes – backing a guy with no political experience. I don’t know if he sees the irony at all? No one seems to know if Carney is even a liberal at heart.

    I wonder how much the risk factor differential between UK political leadership and the US model is down to cultural factors, rather than institutional ones? Although, you could argue that it does indicate a belief the Prez is more constrained by checks and balances than a PM in the Westminster system. Lord knows that is true in Canada.

    • I came to the comments to say the exact same thing re the website. Voice of reason beats me to it.
      Also, that if Carney is out, yet another Coyne! is being touted. I mean, for sheer movie-making mayhem (we can’t make this up!) One Trudeau against Two Coyne’s, you have to admit, is kinda hilarious.

      • Sure is. We only need Wayne Gretzky to throw his stick in and we’d have a three ring circus.
        Did i read you right? Is it seriously being put about that Andrew may run? Wow! I’d love to see that. I like the guy a lot, although i’m not at all onside with his: the market is always the cure nostrums. He would be a breath of fresh air to politics though. Love to see him go head to head with JT. Lots of pundits would rate that no contest, i wouldn’t be anywhere near that sure of it. AC is an unknown and untested political commodity too.
        Do you have a source for this, or is it just “out there”…anonymously speculative?

        • ‘Andrew Coyne for Liberal Leader’ is a Facebook group. They have 1,601 likes, apparently. Mostly links of Coyne bashing Trudeau, and absolutely nothing from Andrew Coyne saying he’s wanting the gig, but still–1,601 likes.

          • Ha! The more AC bashes JT, the more i like Justin’s chances.

  3. I like how the hook of Carney speculation got me to read this article, and then it was barely about Marc Carney and the Liberals. I was planning on going straight to the comments to write how such speculation is ridiculous, but the article basically admits that. Well played for views, Macleans.
    On the substantive issue: I have no ideas what the path back for the Liberals is; it doesn’t look promising.

  4. Re- Photo accompanying story:

    The name is Bond. Low interest, inflation proof, Government of Canada marketable bond.

  5. Let alone “contemplating a jump into politics”, is Carney even a Liberal (or small-l liberal)? I’ve not seen any evidence of that either.

  6. Another one I don’t think is interested but would make for an interesting race: Danny Williams. He has a solid history in both the business and political arenas, and a visceral hate for Harper that, at minimum, would make for good television.

    Would I ever love to see him in the HoC regularly going for Harper’s jugular!

    • I would love to see Danny Williams run and not just for the good TV. I applauded his style as a Premier. There was a guy that made a positive diference for New Foundlanders.

    • NL is the only province in Canada in which the Libs won the popular vote in 2011. Go for it Danny!

  7. The Blue Grits don’t seem to understand that the center of gravity of the Liberal Party has shifted to the loony left. You aren’t going to be able to put Humpety Dumpety back together again. There is no party left for Carney to lead.

    I know both the Conservative Party and the NDP are a bit uncouth and unsophisticated and populist for you elitist Laurentian types, but your day is done.

    Count your blessings. You still rule Rosedale and Westmount.

    • Stop making stuff up.

      You know nothing about the Liberals.

    • Some party is going to have to clean up Harper’s fiscal mess. Are you suggesting a new party then?

    • Better loony left than raving right.

    • Funny, I heard Duffy described JT as maybe being the first lib to abandon the Laurentian label in a long, long time. Hope so. It’s the only way for him to go really…and hope to succeed of course.

  8. I think Justin Trudeau can bring back some passion to the Liberals, however, given his experience, he may lack the “business” savyness that some are seeking.
    Should he ever decide to return to public service, I think Frank McKenna would be the just the person to lead the Liberals. Mr. McKenna would represent balance in passion, posture and business savyness in his leadership.

  9. Now seriously folks. Do you really think that a man being touted for just about every senior financial oversight post on the planet, even ones for foreign governments like Bank of England and US Federal Reserve, would actually want to throw that level of infulence ad prestige way for the job of leader of Canada’s third place party? Seriously? It takes a truly large serving of both obliviousness and arrogance to make such an assumption. But then again, some would say the Liberals have both in spades.
    Seriously, the era of Pearson and Trudeau is over. Yes, the Liberal partly was once the natural route of the highly capable into public life. No more. They can no longer offer the keys to Sussex Drive. They can only offer a hard, bitter, partisan, multi- election slog back from the brink, with no guarantee of the big prize at the end. You will only get dedicated, true believer Liberals for that.

  10. Oops. Make that “influence and prestige.” Typing accuracy clearly is not a strength. :)

  11. Carney should run. Thank you for your support, Maclean’s.