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.”