Filibuster CartoonsTitle: Garneau the Gimmick
(click to view)Date:
December 4, 2012
In an event widely described
as the most serious challenge to Justin Trudeau's otherwise guaranteed coronation as the next boss of the Liberal Party of Canada, former Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau jumped into the Liberal leadership race last week
. He will be the first horse-sized duck
in a race otherwise dominated by fowl-sized ponies.
An accomplished engineer and navy caption, in 1984, Garneau became the first Canadian in outer space after hitching a ride on the doomed American shuttle Challenger
one on of her final flights. Predictably, this made him an overnight natural treasure
among Canadians of a certain generation, and after a post-astronaut stint running Canada's federal space bureaucracy
, Marc repeatedly tried to parlay his fame into a John Glenn-style political career — but achieved only marginal success.
In 2006 Garneau attempted to a win a parliamentary seat in the Montreal riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, but was clobbered
quite handily by the Bloc Quebecois incumbent by a margin of 43 to 28%. Two years later, he was installed by Liberal boss Stephane Dion as the party's nominee in a much safer Quebec riding (supposedly on Marc's own insistence), which he easily won. Three years after that, however, he was very nearly a casualty
of the so-called "Orange Crush" NDP sweep that eroded much of his party's support in the province. Following the subsequent resignation of Michael Ignatieff, Garneau flouted his own name
as a possible successor, but his pleas fell on deaf ears as the party quietly installed Bob Rae instead.
Politically speaking, Garneau is thus not terribly different from JT. Both are one-and-half term Quebec MPs representing Parliament's third-place party. Neither has held a cabinet seat or any other federal, provincial, or municipal office of note. And now both are gunning for their party's top job on what amounts to a campaign of argumentum ad novitatem
, or an appeal to gimmick rather than substance (visit marcgarneau.ca
and see how long it takes to spot a space pun).
At the same time, it would be unfair to minimize the obvious differences between the two men. For all his political naivete, Garneau is clearly one of the great heroes of modern Canadian history (as some wags have observed, it's rare to see a guy run for prime minister with schools already
named after him), and "astronaut" is undeniably a job made of far more challenging stuff than "substitute drama teacher
" — to quote the popular dismissal of Justin's pre-parliamentary career.
Yet it reveals much about the current woes of the Liberals that the mere fact that Garneau possesses some
experience in something
is enough to win him unanimous kudos for being the "substantial" candidate, regardless of how politically irrelevant said experience is in practice. We can all agree that Garneau's PhD in electrical engineering from the Imperial College of London is impressive, for instance, but barring a need to rewire Parliament's lighting fixtures, it's hard to see what relevance it will have for a future prime minister. Only in the land of the desperate is the spaceman a logical king.
Now, one of the most interesting phenomena in contemporary North American politics is the way current partisan trends in Canada have come to resemble an eerie mirror image of those in the States.
Both nations, after all, are governed by essentially pragmatic, moderate administrations that are nevertheless fanatically opposed by opposition parties who believe themselves to be facing down the most ideologically extreme government in their country's history. And despite incessant efforts to bombard the public with hysterical propaganda, the incumbent still seems weirdly entrenched.
With an election looming, the opposition scrambles to select a candidate to run against their horrible ruler, and though their cast of applicants is wide and ample, the vast majority are untalented hacks devoid of much achievement or substance. Sensing disarray, the sensationalist media happily focuses on the inherent goofiness of the race and its lacklustre contenders, and the opposition brand dwindles into a perennial butt of punchlines and pity.
In this sense, the Canadian left is presently in a roughly similar place to the American right circa summer, 2011
, when a large, but sub-par field of wannabe GOP nominees provoked endless pining for some mythical Republican messiah, be it Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, or even — amazingly, in retrospect — Rick Perry, to save the party from itself. But the Republican saviour never came, and neither will the Liberals'.
Instead, they have a Mitt Romney of their very own in Justin Trudeau (a well-bred, out-of-touch flip-flopper
), a Perry in the form of Garneau (famous but untested), and a bunch of Bachmann, Cains, and Huntsmans picking up the rear in the form of the six also-rans
(only ours have less electoral experience).
Good people didn't run for president in 2012 in part because they realized the quest to unseat Barack Obama would be impossible so long as the Republican Party's White House strategy was based entirely around mindless contrarianism personified by, in Paul Krugman's words
, "attacking Mr. Obama for doing things that the president hasn't done and believing things he doesn't believe" but rarely offering concrete alternatives of their own. And so too does it appear that good Canadians aren't exactly rushing to head the Liberals — whose leading politicians muse about secession
and non-existent conspiracies
to criminalize gay marriage and abortion — for what we must assume are largely the same reasons.
Canadians may not love Prime Minister Harper with a blind uncritical passion any more than Americans love President Obama with a similarly implausible intensity. But the citizens of both countries do seem to trust
their leaders' steady hands and pragmatic visions in a way that ultimately matters a great deal more — and, just as importantly, squirm nervously at the available alternatives.
Captain Garneau may be a fresh political face with a compelling life story, but until he proves himself capable of engaging with the deeper question of just why voters have come to distrust and dislike his party as much as they do, he's ultimately just one more space case in a party already filled with them.