Ottawa

He said he wouldn't, but Garneau rounds on Trudeau

Is Garneau getting serious? Or is he desperate?

Adrian Wyld/CP

From the day Marc Garneau officially launched his bid for the Liberal leadership late last November, I’ve wondered when he would take aim more explicitly at Justin Trudeau, the guy to beat. It seems today is the day.

At his news conference announcing his run, Garneau sounded to me like he was trying to frame the contrast, but without quite saying so. “I will talk about my strengths and my strengths are proven,” he answered then when I asked him about the Trudeau comparison. “That is what I have to do and that is what I will clearly do.”

I interviewed him at length in late December for this story, and pressed him again on how he expected to catch up to a prohibitive frontrunner without bluntly asking Liberals to think hard about why he might be the better choice. Garneau said the danger of sparking a bruising intramural battle was too great and, anyway, he figured Liberals would draw their own conclusions. Here’s how he put it:

“I think Liberal voters, members and supporters, by next April will have seen enough of us that they will be able to say, ‘This is what Marc Garneau says he will do, and this is who he is, and this is who Justin is, and what Justin says he will do, and I prefer one or the other.’ I think it will happen naturally. A leadership race within a party is always fraught with peril in the sense that we all work together the day after. We’re all mindful of that. I will not get personal with anybody.”

And yet there’s definitely a personal edge to the statement now posted on Garneau campaign website. Here’s part of it (flagged earlier by my colleague Aaron Wherry):

“I believe this leadership race is the time for the party to vigorously debate the issues of importance to Liberals, to Canadians; to define where we stand as a party; and to select the person who can best lead us. That’s the fundamental difference between Justin Trudeau and myself. Justin believes telling Canadians we need a ‘bold’ plan and a ‘clear vision’ without defining either is good enough. He speaks in vague generalities, and on his two key priorities – the middle-class and youth – he has presented no direction.”

There are two ways to interpret this blunter message: Garneau’s getting serious, or he’s getting desperate. Or perhaps a bit of both. In any case, his early sensitivity to the possibility of hard feelings setting in during the course of this leadership race has gone by the wayside. Hard feelings and political rivalries, after all, are inseparable companions.

At the time I interviewed him in late December, Garneau was optimistic that the five debates the party planned would be where the substantial differences among the candidates would come into sharp relief.

But at the first two, in Vancouver and Winnipeg, nothing like that happened. Nine candidates shared the stage. The atmosphere at both was cautious to a fault. There’s not much chance of sustained focus on any two combatants. It remains to be seen if the formats for next three debates prove any more clarifying. (The next one is Feb. 16 in Mississauga, Ont.)

With his putative big lead, Trudeau has to like the easygoing feel of the race to date. So you’d expect his strategy to be to shrug off Garneau’s bid to crank up the tension. It’ll be interesting to see how far Garneau is willing to go to try to compel Trudeau to engage.

UPDATE:

Under the heading “That Was Then…” and for the benefit of truly obsessed politicos who like to parse these things, I’ve gone back to the recording of my Dec. 18 interview with Marc Garneau. Here’s the exchange we had on the delicate matter of how directly he might (or might not) attack Justin Trudeau:

Q It seems to me that you or people working for you will have to clarify the contrast between you and Justin Trudeau. Do you think I’m wrong about that?

A During the course of the next four months, I don’t think I need to say, ‘This is me, unlike Justin Trudeau or anybody else, and this is how I’m distinctly different than him,’ and keep on pointing that out.

I think Liberal voters, members and supporters, by next April will have seen enough of us that they will be able to say, ‘This is what Marc Garneau says he will do, and this is who he is, and this is who Justin is, and what Justin says he will do, and I prefer one or the other.’ I think it will happen naturally.

A leadership race within a party is always fraught with peril, in the sense that we all work together the day after. We’re all mindful of that. I will not get personal with anybody. And I will focus on what I would do and let others say what they will do. I won’t say on stage, ‘I disagree with that.’ People will see. They’re smart enough.

 

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.