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Marc Garneau could have the right stuff for Liberal leader

Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on May 10, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian press

Many thoughtful observers are weighing in with interesting ideas on what the Liberals need to accomplish in their leadership race. Rex Murphy may have put it best, musing about whether this will turn out to be "one more yawn before sleep" or a race of greater import.

Liberals may be tempted to seek the homerun hitter, someone who's public renown suggests they can lay waste to opponents on both the left and the right. Polls point to Justin Trudeau as the one who best fits that bill. However some caution is advised: Polls about leadership preferences at this very early stage measure the softest of opinion.

Similar polling foretold success for John Turner, Paul Martin, and Kim Campbell. As a group, these worthy individuals served less than three years in the Langevin Block. Polls were mixed about the prospects for Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Stephen Harper, who combined have put in roughly 25 years and counting in the corner office.

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With that caution about the value of these polls in mind, I took a look at some recent Angus Reid data that tested the horse-race impact of a variety of possible Liberal leaders. Commentary on this poll tended to focus on what would happen if Justin Trudeau's name were penciled in as leader. But there was another pretty interesting story in the numbers about the appeal of Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau.

According to the data, a Garneau-led Liberal Party would be pretty competitive in many parts of the country, including Quebec and Ontario. Since Mr. Garneau's life in politics has not been terribly high profile, one might wonder why. To be sure, those who've followed Mr. Garneau since he arrived in the House of Commons would have observed someone who takes the work of politics seriously, avoids bombast and manufactured outrage better than many, and is widely respected.

But it's a better bet that more people know the Garneau name from his work as an astronaut. Which means these numbers could be little more than an indication of his celebrity, but I suspect there's more to it than that. Most people know that getting a seat on a NASA spacecraft is one of the toughest job competitions in the world. Only seriously smart, incredibly self-disciplined people need apply. And then the works starts. The physical and psychological makeup of those who get to space is tested to extraordinary levels. Marc Garneau not only made the cut, he served on three missions.

But is the "right stuff" for space work relevant to political leadership?

The elements of success for political leaders include core values, solid policy ideas, effective communications skills, and the ability to inspire. Mr. Garneau, should he run, would of course need to be competitive in these areas.

But how people relate to leaders is also about what they see when they get a glimpse into the soul of a candidate. What makes them tick. Can we trust them to do the right thing, whatever the circumstances. When the going gets rough, will they react with a calm, steady hand? Do they make decisions based on information and logic, or emotion? We try to figure out if they are motivated by ego, partisanship or a genuine desire to serve. Do they prefer conflict or collaboration? On all of these questions, Mr. Garneau's resumé suggests a person of considerable strength of character, with qualities that deserve serious consideration.

If Mr. Garneau enters the race, touting interesting ideas for the future of the country, his candidacy may become a pretty interesting story line. For many voters, he may have already passed some pretty important qualifying exams.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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