Having conquered space, Garneau aims for Canada's top job

Marc Garneau is credible, experienced, likable, celebrated, looks like a statesman and says he doesn't enter anything in his life to come anything but first. So why isn't he the frontrunner to be Liberal leader?

Former astronaut says next Liberal leader can't be 'untested'

Former astronaut and Quebec MP Marc Garneau is running for the Liberal leadership, to be decided April 14. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Marc Garneau is credible, likable, celebrated, looks like a statesman and when it comes to being experienced it really doesn't get much better than being able to say you used to be an astronaut and have logged 677 hours in outer space.

"I think I've demonstrated throughout my career all the things which I've done. I won't repeat them, but that plays into it. My life experiences, my solid judgment, my track record and everything I've done in my life," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't enter anything in my life to come anything but first."

In his recent challenge to Justin Trudeau for a one-on-one debate, which Trudeau declined, Garneau's frustration was palpable. It can't be easy, considering you once beat out 4,000 candidates to become one of six participants in the Canadian space program, to have to acknowledge Trudeau is the frontrunner, as Garneau did when he questioned Trudeau's ability to lead and capacity to have a vision or a plan.

Federal Liberal leadership

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the candidates for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

The eight remaining candidates will be showcased at an event in Toronto April 6, commencing a week of voting by party members and supporters. The winner will be announced April 14 in Ottawa.

"The leadership of the Liberal party is too important a position to be handed to an untested candidate who is hiding behind a carefully crafted public relations campaign," he said at a press conference last week, using language that may pop up in future Conservative ad campaigns if Trudeau wins.

Garneau took his "Liberals, we have a problem" concerns to mid-February's leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont. In their few minutes together on stage, Garneau pressed Trudeau with what-is-your-résumé questions, but Trudeau batted them away so deftly that Garneau probably did him a favour.

Trudeau pointed out that even in the face of the NDP surge in Quebec, he tripled his vote margin in the last election in his Papineau riding. He could have added, but did not, that Garneau's margin of victory in Westmount-Ville-Marie in the same election was decimated, down from more than 9,000 to just over 600.

The most educated, the most decorated

But when it comes to résumés, no other candidate comes close to Garneau. He is the most educated and most decorated of any of them: an RMC degree, a doctorate in naval engineering, military staff college, a year training at the Johnson Space Center. In his military career, he rose to the rank of a navy captain, equivalent to a colonel in the army. He's been awarded two levels of the Order of Canada, a science medal, a NASA medal and a string of honourary degrees.

Marc Garneau, first Canadian in space. (marcgarneau.ca)

Whatever happens politically, he already owns a spot in Canadian history by being the first Canadian in space. He later became head of the Canadian Space Agency.

He's married to Pamela Soames, with whom has two children, and he has two grown children, twins, from his first marriage. He was a single parent for a time following the death of his former wife in the 1980s. He has talked about his fondness for vacuuming and his penchant for making chili, a recipe he learned living in Houston.

On policy, Garneau has staked out some of his own ground. His number one priority is the economy, he says, and, "I've clearly recognized the centre of gravity in this country has moved towards the West. I'm very focused on Canada trading with Asia. That's become the economic centre of gravity for the planet."

He thinks the Conservatives' claim of being good stewards of the economy is "laughable." 

"If you cast your mind back to 2008, Flaherty did not even see the recession coming... I think he's revised his figures on the deficit about eight times," Garneau said.

Garneau advocates opening up the telecommunications market to foreign competition so Canadians can have lower wireless prices, and says young people shouldn't have to start paying off student loans until they find a job that pays more than $40,000 a year.

Favours a 'disincentive to pollute'

He favours some kind of carbon pricing or, as he puts it, a "disincentive to pollute." He thinks the current Northern Gateway pipeline route may be too high risk, but advocates getting oil to the West Coast and to China.

"It's not enriching Canada if it stays in the soil in Alberta. We need to do this, but we need to do it in the proper scientific way with consulatation in a constructive manner. "

Garneau views the concept of electoral cooperation with the NDP as dangerous: "Harper and Mulcair have both got the strategy for the next election of totally eliminating the Liberal Party of Canada. They would like to have a future without the Liberal Party of Canada."

Liberals are different from Conservatives and from the NDP, he says. "The Conservatives want virtually no government, the NDP thinks that government can solve virtually every problem... there is a middle road, and that is the Liberal road."

"Most Canadians have a sense of fairness, and that's where Liberals are, and that's certainly where I am."