Former central banker Carney makes political debut at Liberal convention

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn't saying whether he's trying to recruit former central banker Mark Carney to run for the Liberals.

Trudeau dodged questions Friday about Carney's possible political future just hours before the former governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England was set to make a star turn at the federal Liberals' national convention.

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Carney's appearance at the convention — in conversation Friday evening with rookie Liberal MP and convention co-chair Marci Ien — marks the first time he's dipped his toe publicly into partisan politics.

The question on all Liberals' minds is whether it signals an intention to finally take the plunge into politics.

But political rivals weren't waiting for an answer to begin trashing Carney as a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist.

"While Liberals continue to court the approval of the ultra-rich and well connected, New Democrats will continue to fight for working people," the NDP said in a statement Friday.

"After getting chased out of the United Kingdom for billing more than $500,000 in travel expenses for 52 trips to exotic places, often on fossil-fuel-powered jets, Carney will preach to Canadians about the need for higher energy prices," predicted Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre in another statement.

"He will also promote trendy new economic experiments that are popular with Davos billionaires."

For his part, Trudeau did not directly answer when asked twice during a pandemic news conference earlier Friday whether he's encouraging Carney to run for the governing party in the next election.

Rather, he characterized Carney's appearance at the convention as a way of tapping into his expertise on economic policy and on climate change. Carney is currently the United Nations special envoy on climate action and finance.

"The Liberal party has a long history of welcoming in expert speakers at our conventions from a range of different backgrounds," Trudeau said.

"We're very pleased to have someone of the stature of Mark Carney who's been working very, very hard on, among other things, the intersection between the global economy and the fight against climate change."

Trudeau said it's another example of how Liberals are listening to "the best and the brightest from around the world" on how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and "build back better" the ravaged economy.

Trudeau, and all other party leaders, insist they don't want an election during the pandemic. But since the Liberals hold only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, the government could fall or trigger an election at any time and all parties are getting ready for one.

Trudeau announced Friday the co-chairs of the Liberal campaign "whenever it arrives" — Economic Development Minister Melanie Joly and Mississauga MP Navdeep Bains, who resigned from cabinet earlier this year after deciding he won't seek re-election.

While the government's priority remains "doing everything it takes — for as long as it takes" to see the country through the pandemic, Trudeau said in a statement that "at some point in the years ahead, we know that there will be an election with big questions about the kind of future we want to build together."

Whether Carney will be part of the Liberal team on the hustings when the next campaign starts remains an open question.

For a decade, Liberals have dreamed of persuading Carney to run for the party and, maybe one day, even lead it.

Carney quietly flirted with the idea of a leadership run in 2012, courted by Liberals smarting from a historic electoral thumping and desperately searching for a saviour.

But amid criticism that even the smallest whiff of partisanship was undermining the independence crucial to a central banker, Carney eventually squelched the speculation by saying he'd just as soon become a "circus clown" and then left Canada to take over the helm of the Bank of England.

He has been coy about his political ambitions since returning to Canada last summer and releasing a book last month promoting his vision for a new kind of capitalism that combines the pursuit of profit with social purpose.

His view that the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to reset the way the world works, making it more inclusive, more equitable and more environmentally sustainable, dovetails neatly with the thinking of Trudeau's government.

Carney's appearance at the convention comes little more than a week before Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, herself seen as a potential successor to Trudeau, is to deliver her first budget. It is expected to lay out in detail the cost of the pandemic, which has already sent the national deficit soaring past $380 billion, along with a plan to spend up to $100 billion more to fuel a more equitable, green, inclusive economic recovery.

Even if Carney doesn't tip his hand later Friday about his political ambitions, endorsement of the government's general direction by someone of his stature would be welcomed by Liberals.

In remarks to the convention Thursday evening, Freeland re-emphasized her belief that a national early learning and child-care program is an essential part of rebuilding the economy and getting women, who've been hardest hit by the pandemic, back into the workforce.

Trudeau echoed that view Friday, saying the pandemic has demonstrated that child care "is not simply a social argument or a social program, it's fundamentally an economic program."

He also said the pandemic has "highlighted, and worsened, too many gaps in our society." But he declined to weigh in on a top priority resolution being pushed by his own caucus, among others, calling for a universal basic income.

The idea generated considerable debate in the chat forum and in two workshops at the convention later Friday. While many participants were enthusiastic, others expressed concern that a basic income would replace existing support programs and actually leave some people, like those with disabilities, worse off.

Winnipeg Liberal Gregory Liverpool told a workshop that single mothers and people with disabilities would lose $5,000 in benefits. People with disabilities have not received enough federal support during the pandemic, he added, saying they've been "totally left out by this government and this party."

Another participant with a disability agreed a basic income "would be ableism at its finest," while others worried about the cost and others about the lack of detail.

Toronto MP Julie Dzerowicz countered that a basic income would streamline a multitude of federal and provincial support programs and would be designed on the principle that everyone should be left better off.

Trudeau himself has been lukewarm about the idea, suggesting in the past that now is not the time to contemplate such a major overhaul of Canada's social safety net.

He noted Friday that "challenging" resolutions at past conventions have made their way into the Liberal platform and government policy and said this convention is an opportunity for Liberals to talk about "a wide range of great ideas that will help move Canada forward."

"What they won't be doing this weekend is debating about whether climate change is real. That debate is settled for Canadians," Trudeau added, taking a jab at last month's Conservative convention, where delegates rejected a resolution to acknowledge the reality of climate change.

However, the Liberals' record on climate change came under scrutiny later during a conversation between Laure Waridel and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. The pair co-founded the Quebec-based environmental group Equiterre.

Waridel bluntly asked Guilbeault why the Liberals haven't delivered on their promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. She urged the government to admit it was wrong to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and said it should cancel it, predicting the Liberals would win a lot of votes in Quebec if they did.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2021.

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