Federal Liberal Party leadership candidates wave to audience prior to a debate in Vancouver, British Columbia January 20, 2013.
Credits: REUTERS/Andy Clark
There are a lot of words you can use to describe the handful of unknowns running for the federal Liberal leadership.
Refreshing is what I'd use. Not so much for the future of Canada. We'll mull that over after future debates. No, I mean for the Liberal Party itself.
During the first debate Sunday the nine candidates combined presented the case that maybe the Liberals will finally do this rebuilding they've been talking about for such a long time. The past two conventions had no shot at party renewal, no matter how often everyone repeated the phrase.
They were heavily brokered events, with no real grassroots involvement. Entirely controlled by the backroom boys. But the candidates who took the stage in Vancouver didn't possess this aura. You actually got the sense that usually meaningless phrase "the grassroots" actually existed this time around.
So what is the aura of a backroom candidate? The old guard modus operandi is the system of delegated conventions where the winner can have zero leadership skills - Stephane Dion - so long as the right rainmakers are working the phones to guarantee they win enough delegates and later ballot backers. In other words: they care more about appeasing the backroom than earnestly winning the membership.
Ah, but now there is no delegated system. And the added "supporter" category throws even more wild cards into the mix. Now it's actually about - gasp - ideas. Which perhaps explains why the debate had a touch of passion to it. Maybe policy and not party intrigue will finally be front and centre at the Liberal family table.
It was telling the most old-guard candidate, Martin Cauchon - former Quebec lieutenant of the party - seemed the most out of place on stage. Instead of coming across like an elder statesman, he clearly carried the baggage from a time better forgotten.
Ultimately, Marc Garneau appeared a formidable contender. The much fawned over Justin Trudeau came across as what he actually is: the youngest, least experienced candidate. There's nothing wrong with being that guy. But put him up against Harper and he'll look and play the fool. Garneau, on the other hand, commands respect.
But talk of saviours is counterproductive. This is the third party, folks. Liberals should welcome the lesser-known candidates and any truth-telling their involvement brings. They, and not Trudeau, are the real path to any Liberal rebuilding.