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Liberal leadership race comes alive as rivals hit out at Trudeau

Justin Trudeau answer questions from the audience at Queen’s University’s Wallace Hall in Kingston on Wednesday, February 13, 2013.

LARS HAGBERG/The Globe and Mail

Top Liberal leadership candidates are ganging up on Justin Trudeau in the hopes of breathing new life into their campaigns ahead of a key weekend debate in the Greater Toronto Area.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau launched the hostilities in a carefully planned news conference on Wednesday, arguing the Liberal Party is set to repeat past mistakes by crowning a new leader without challenging him on policy matters.

"We have to know what we're voting for, not just who we're voting for," Mr. Garneau said in his first set of pointed attacks against Mr. Trudeau. "This is the same as asking Canadians to buy a new car without test-driving it."

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Mr. Garneau acknowledged the widely held perception in Liberal circles that Mr. Trudeau is the candidate to beat on April 14. He said the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau stands to cruise to the finish line without having to expand on his plans to help the middle class and young Canadians.

"Obviously, he is in front, and I'm worried when he tells Liberals and Canadians that he does not need to put out a platform," Mr. Garneau said. "We've heard about bold visions – we need the details."

Another top candidate in the race added that Mr. Trudeau has been avoiding any serious discussion of policy since he announced his candidacy last fall.

"[Liberals] are crying out for substance," former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay said in an interview.

During the 2011 election, in which she lost her seat in Toronto, Ms. Hall Findlay heard criticism that Canadians didn't know what Liberals stood for. She said Mr. Trudeau's lack of clarity on issues is "reinforcing that," and that Liberal members and supporters are looking beyond Mr. Trudeau's celebrity status and now want clear ideas from him.

Ms. Hall Findlay said Mr. Trudeau is giving the impression that he either does not want to articulate policy, or is "afraid" to. She says he has refused to do editorial boards and one-on-one interviews with media unless the events were well-scripted.

After speaking to university students in Kingston on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said his campaign is aimed at involving Canadians in politics, including policy development.

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"What I bring to the table is the capacity to draw people in, to believe and participate in politics once again," he said. "I've talked about a lot of substance and I'll continue to. … We just have to be sure that we're leaving room for Canadians in the development of solutions that are going to carry us into a better place as of 2015."

Earlier in the campaign, Mr. Trudeau explained that he has no intention of laying out a full policy platform, saying he is against such a top-down exercise. He has spelled out his opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline and spoken about legalizing marijuana, for example, but said he prefers to focus on building a party organization rather than dictating a policy agenda for the 2015 election.

The first two debates in the Liberal leadership race were widely seen as dull and unproductive by party members, with nine candidates vying for attention during a limited time frame. The upcoming meeting in Mississauga promises to feature more sparks, with a series of one-on-ones between the candidates. By coincidence, the first matchup will feature Mr. Trudeau against Mr. Garneau.

"I think that Saturday's debate will be more interesting, at least I hope so," Mr. Garneau told reporters.

The former astronaut said he believes he is doing the party a favour by "sounding the alarm" on Mr. Trudeau's lack of a full platform. Unless the Liberals have clear policies, he said, the Conservatives will have the luxury of defining the next Liberal leader in the eyes of the public.

"We can't make the same mistake as last time and think we only need to have the coronation of a leader and that everything will be solved," he said.

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Ms. Hall-Findlay said she has been frustrated with the debate format so far, adding she would like to see a smaller confrontation between the three front-runners, which she deemed to be Mr. Garneau, Mr. Trudeau and herself. She said Canadians want to see how the top candidates would react against stiff opposition such as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

"People need to have substance on which to base their choice," she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay. This online version has been corrected.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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