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Space chief's "got the fire"

Dr. Marc Garneau

Westmount–Ville-Marie Liberal candidate and former Canadian Space Agency chief Dr. Marc Garneau is back in the fray and there’s no stopping him this time. Wooed back to the fold by Stéphane Dion after his 2006 loss in Vaudreuil–Soulanges, he’s taken the lessons of his political baptism philosophically and during a recent visit to The Senior Times offices, proved still earnest and passionate enough to give a frank opinion where more battle-hardened veterans will stick to their talking points.

“You can’t go to school and learn how to be a politician,” he says of the experience, which pitted him against a sitting Bloc MP who lived in the riding and made headlines when he suggested Gilles Duceppe and André Boisclair might have a change of heart after seeing the world from space. But after the trials and disappointments of political life he’s still “got the fire” and insists his party is “ready financially and organizationally” to fight an election. Tomorrow? “Yes, tomorrow.”

Yet the party’s post-2006 regrouping and reorganizing is still ongoing with a policy convention set to take place sometime before the end of the year and a new Commission of Regions just recently created to tackle their situation outside the cities. Pressed for specifics on whether a Liberal strategy to win back the regions exists yet, Garneau says, “There’s no question that we have a challenge,” and asserts that an issue-by-issue approach targeted to each riding is key to winning. “I’ve been involved in helping my colleagues in the regions – Saguenay, the Outaouais, the Eastern Townships, Rimouski – and people want to talk about specific issues, whether it’s regional disparities, poverty issues, or job losses in forestry, agriculture, and manufacturing.” Falling back on broader distinctions, he believes that “explaining Liberal philosophy and values” in contrast to those of the Conservatives will turn things around because Liberal values are “closer to what the majority of Canadians feel they want from their government.”

Foremost among those contrasts is environmental policy, where the debate over a carbon tax looms large in the media, but Garneau is loath to let it take on a life of its own. “It’s not that this is a Liberal policy on taxing carbon… the use of a carbon tax is an acknowledgement, supported by Canadians, that we must put a price on the use of fossil fuels… what Mr. Dion has been careful to say is that this is a revenue-neutral package focused on fiscal responsibility and revenues generated from this carbon tax will be reallocated specifically to lower income taxes and also to lower corporate taxes. He talks about it alongside the 30/50 plan – our plan to reduce poverty in five years by 30% among the general population and by 50% among youth. So in that sense it’s bigger than just addressing the environment.”

But where Garneau’s experience and enthusiasm truly come to bear is in science and technology. “We’re not optimizing our ability to innovate in this country. Right now we have a relatively mediocre standing, about fifteenth in the world in terms of how innovation is measured. We put money into research and development and we provide incentives to the manufacturing sector, but we haven’t focused on our weakness – taking the fruits of research and turning them into viable products and services. There’s a weak link between the two.

“I think there is a role for the federal government because the whole thing needs to be managed coherently. A lot of the research is in universities or in hospitals or in government labs or at larger enterprises like Nortel and Bombardier. Smaller companies don’t put necessarily enough into it.”

He cites the example of Finland, transformed over the past 50 years from a largely agrarian economy to a technological leader through free post-secondary education and business incubators that focus on taking research to market. “We’ve taken a less focused approach. The federal government certainly can play a much greater role in helping to emulate the best practices and models that other countries have adopted, and we also need to strengthen our intellectual property laws.”

The Westmount–Ville-Marie byelection has to be called by July 25 and is expected to be held in the fall. The Conservative nominee is Guy Dufort and the Green Party has nominated Claude Genest. Candidates for the Bloc and NDP have yet to be announced.


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