Mr. Nice Guy Garneau has no intention of finishing last

OTTAWA – Marc Garneau evidently hasn’t heard that old maxim about nice guys finishing last.

The Liberal leadership hopeful allows he’s a decent fellow but insists that doesn’t mean he can’t overcome the Conservative attack machine, which chewed up and spat out the last two Liberal leaders.

“I am nice,” Garneau told The Canadian Press in a wide-ranging interview.

“But if people don’t think that I’m tough, they’ve got something coming to them. You don’t get to where I am today without being tough. You can be nice about it but I’m tough. Inside, I’m tough.”

As if afraid that might sound boastful, the self-effacing Montreal MP immediately added: “So, but, it’s up to people to decide that.”

“But I’m glad people think I’m nice. I like to be nice. Politicians should be nice, whenever possible.”

It says something about the state of Canadian politics that being nice is seen as a potential liability. But so it is for Garneau, despite the fact that he is, almost literally, a rocket scientist with impressive academic credentials and sterling resume as a naval engineer, Canada’s first astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency.

The ability to stand up to the Tories is particularly pertinent for Liberals, who saw the similarly impressive intellects of Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff reduced to devastating catch phrases — “not a leader” and “just visiting” — in sustained Conservative attack ads.

The political up side of being nice may be that the Conservatives would have a tough time digging up dirt to sling at Garneau. He declined to speculate on what they might come up with or whether he’d present less of a target than leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau, who has already been strafed for a two-year-old interview lamenting the state of the country with Albertans in charge.

In any event, Garneau figures Canadians aren’t looking for in-your-face, tit-for-tat partisanship from their leaders.

“Ultimately, what I think they look for in a leader is somebody who is strong, somebody who is reassuring when there’s a crisis and somebody who puts forward good policy … and I think I have those things,” said Garneau, the first non-American employed by NASA to handle soothing communications from Mission Control to space shuttle crews.

Garneau is widely presumed to be the most serious challenger to Trudeau. Nevertheless, upsetting the party’s undisputed rock star is a tall order, even for a rocket scientist.

He took the leadership plunge despite the odds, guided by the same philosophy that propelled him into space.

“I profoundly believe that I do not want to reach the end of my life and have any regrets about anything. And that means that if I feel strongly about something, I’ve got to give it go,” he said.

“And if I fail, so be it. But I do not want to say coulda, shoulda, woulda at the end.”

Awaiting blast-off in a rocket, Garneau admits, there was a moment he had “a very, very powerful existential feeling about what the hell am I doing.” There has been no such moment thus far in the leadership campaign, which culminates on April 14.

“Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve had a great launch. I like where I am. … More and more, people are saying this is a candidate who needs to be given serious consideration.”

Garneau has begun staking out his ground on economic issues, calling for wide-open competition in telecommunications and releasing a four-point plant to encourage innovation and increase productivity.

On other issues, Garneau said:

— Canadians dealt Liberals a humiliating defeat in the last election because the party had lost its connection with people, was no longer clear about what it stood for, was “guilty of arrogance” and dwelled on past achievements rather than looking to the future.

— The Liberal party faces “big challenges” in making inroads in the West. Having served on the board of an oil sands company for two years, Garneau said he understands that “the economic engine of the country has shifted to the West” and such recognition is the first step in launching a comeback in what has been a Liberal wilderness for decades.

— “I think most Canadians are prepared to accept the need for a price on carbon” to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He is not yet ready to propose a specific way to do that, saying he’s still “working it out in my head.”

— Military muscle is “an important part” of Canada’s foreign policy, along with diplomacy and aid.

“We spilled blood, Canadian blood and treasure, trying to do something good (in Afghanistan). I’m bringing that up to make the point that you can’t just talk — for example, like the NDP — about foreign policy. You have to sometimes do some of the heavy lifting, otherwise you don’t have any credibility.”

— That said, Canada does not need to purchase stealth fighter jets. Garneau said the replacement for the current CF-18s fighter jets will be used primarily to protect Canadian air space and in occasional combat situations where the drill now is to use cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to destroy an enemy’s defences before sending in manned planes. In neither case is a stealth fighter necessary.

— Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s brand has “deteriorated. … We’re not held in the same sort of sense of Canada being a helper, an honest broker, a fixer, as a country that tries to, as a middle power, constructively engage.”

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