Federal Liberal leadership hopeful and former astronaut Marc Garneau visited McMaster on Feb. 26 to meet with students.
Garneau became Canada’s first man in space in October 1984 when he worked as a payload specialist on the shuttle Challenger. He entered politics in the mid-2000s and currently serves as MP for the Westmount-Ville Marie riding in Montreal.
Garneau is widely considered to be in second to frontrunner Justin Trudeau in the race for leadership.
The down-to-earth mechanical engineer was greeted by a dozen students in The Phoenix and discussed issues ranging from education to oil sands. While his policies vary from those of his competitors, Garneau’s message was much the same as other candidates.
“As a party we have made some mistakes in the past few years, and we’re rebuilding,” he explained. “We have a huge amount of work to do.”
The Liberal Party has faced a major drop in support over the past decade. The number of seats held by Liberals in the House of Commons has been on the decline since 2000. Of the 308 seats, only 35 are currently held by Liberals.
Garneau is keen to see that change. His platform is based around a focus on the knowledge-based economy, a sector he feels has been neglected.
“My professional life has really been focused on the high tech sector,” he said. “I understand how innovation happens. We have the ingredients in this country – the people with good ideas. But we’re not helping them develop those ideas into commercial successes.”
He went on to say that the traditional Liberal focus has been on natural resources, rather than the knowledge economy. But he doesn’t want to discount the role of the West, in particular the oil sands, in Canada.
“I understand that they have become the economic centre of gravity of this country,” Garneau explained. He underlined the importance of “getting Westerners on board” with the party’s direction in order to be successful, citing his three-year term on the board of an oil company as relevant experience.
His platform has also resonated well with students for its policy on student loans. Garneau has proposed that students be able to defer repayment on the federal portion of their loans until they are employed and earning $40,000 a year.
“I think the best indicator [of this policy’s popularity] – and I’m not being facetious here – is that three days later, Justin [Trudeau] adopted the same policy,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s a smart thing to do … it’s a good investment.”
Canadian media have been keen to hail Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as the new hope for the Liberal Party.
But in the midst of Trudeau’s rise to stardom, Garneau claims to be more grounded. He has publicly accused Trudeau of being focused too much on vision and not enough on specific policies or strategies to accomplish his goals.
“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 Feb. 25 press conference. He challenged the Papineau MP to a one-on-one debate, which Trudeau declined.
The two candidates will join their six competitors, including former Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay and Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, in Halifax on March 3 for a debate. The convention to choose the leader will take place on April 14.