Liberals say they are far from dead

Liberals say their party is far from dead and are urging each other to embrace change at this weekend's policy convention.

'I didn't get there but you will,' Michael Ignatieff tells delegates

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae delivered an opening speech at his party's convention Friday and urged Liberals to be open to change. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Liberals say their party is far from dead and are urging each other to embrace change as they decide how to rebuild their party at this weekend's convention.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae told party members during his kickoff speech early in the day to be true to themselves and not to fear change.

"All we have to do is be true to ourselves as Liberals," Rae told a packed room of delegates at the Ottawa Convention Centre. "We don't have to be something we're not."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty echoed those statements during an evening speech to delegates. He talked about how to strengthen the party, and offered his views on how to move from opposition to government, and on how to fight neo-Conservatives.

No quick fix

A leader is not a saviour, he told them, adding that success will depend on hard work. "Choosing a leader is no quick fix, I am living proof of that," he said to a standing-room-only crowd.

Former prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin sat next to each other, Turner in a wheelchair, during the speech.

Another former Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, was also back in Ottawa for the convention and a special tribute was paid to him Friday evening. Ignatieff resigned as leader in the aftermath of last May's election when the Liberals suffered their worst defeat in the party's history. He was among the Liberal MPs who failed to win their seat in the House of Commons. 

The creation of a scholarship fund in his name was announced by a former staffer and a former volunteer. The independent endowment fund will be open to post-secondary students and was set up by Ignatieff's friends and colleagues.

Ignatieff appeared surprised by the honour when he took the stage and said it was a wonderful gift for him and for Canadians.

The former leader talked about how much he loves politics and he thanked candidates, the Liberal caucus, and his old friend Bob Rae who took over from him when he resigned.

Ignatieff said whoever the party chooses as the next leader, he will "stand 100 per cent behind that leader and I'll keep my mouth shut too."

He urged his fellow Liberals to never give up, or to give in and to keep fighting.

"I gave it everything I had, but I didn't get there," he said. "You will get there."

Rebuilding theme

The theme of this weekend's convention, which has attracted about 3,000 Liberals is on how to rebuild the party.

To succeed once again, Liberals have to remember their "bedrock" and renew their commitment to what brought them to the party in the first place, Rae told delegates earlier in the day.

"We simply have to be ourselves," Rae said during a speech that prompted several standing ovations. He told the hundreds of Liberals who are gathering from across the country for the biennial policy convention that he loves being their interim leader and when talking to reporters after his speech he once again faced a number of questions about whether he wants to keep the job permanently.

Rae maintained his position of refusing to rule out an interest in going for the job.

"I don’t have any other intentions than to do what I'm doing," he said. "If the party has other intentions they'll have to figure that out but as far as I'm concerned I'm focusing on this job right now and in any event there wouldn't be a leadership race until 2013 so I think we've got some time to focus on what we’re doing."

The leadership question is not formally on the agenda at the convention but it is inevitably part of the discussion as the Liberals focus on the convention’s theme of rebuilding.

While encouraging Liberals to stay true to their roots and party values, Rae also encouraged them to be open to change and to embrace "new voices."

"It is so important for us to embrace the notion of dialogue and debate," he said, vowing to keep the debates open to the public. The fear of change should be left to the NDP and the Conservatives, Rae said.

By the end of the weekend delegates will decide on significant questions that are facing the party, including what policy resolutions should be adopted, which people should be elected party officers, and what changes should be made to the party’s structure, the interim leader told them.

"We were knocked down, we were not knocked out. We have picked ourselves up, we have dusted ourselves off and we're going to start all over again," he said.

Rae told delegates that there is no room for complacency or for despair as the party rebuilds.

This weekend delegates will vote for a new party president. There were five candidates in the race but in the early afternoon, Charles Ward withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Mike Crawley.

Sheila Copps, a leading contender in the contest, said she wasn't disappointed by the endorsement.

Liberal members' leading resolutions

Convention delegates will consider a range of resolutions. Each of the party's provincial and territorial associations plus the youth wing and party caucus chose 10 resolutions submitted by local ridings, and identified one priority resolution that will go straight to the plenary session.

Priority resolutions include a national food strategy, a national high-speed rail system, national housing strategy and a strategy to clean up Lake Winnipeg.

The remaining nine resolutions from each group were posted online and voted upon by party members last fall. Here are the ones that came out on top:

1. Democratic renewal: That a "renewal commission" be created and given two years to draft amendments to the party's constitution for a future national convention.

2. Preferential ballot: That the party adopt a preferential ballot for all future national party elections.

3. Accelerated renewable energy plan: That the party "ask the government of Canada to quickly implement a vast and robust" development program of "clean, renewable and efficient energy" and conservation.

4. Legalization and regulation of marijuana: That a Liberal government legalize marijuana, and regulate and tax its production, distribution and use, and extend amnesty to Canadians currently convicted of simple possession, while implementing education and working with local jurisdictions.

5. Electoral reform: That the current "first past the post" system used in federal elections be replaced by a preferential voting system that requires 50 per cent plus one vote to win a federal riding.

This is the first major gathering of Liberals since the party suffered its worst election result in its history last May and it dropped to the third party in the House of Commons.

The convention is serving as a reunion for Liberals. Former MPs who lost their seats are back in Ottawa for the gathering, including Mark Holland, Ruby Dhalla, Maria Minna, Martha Hall Findlay and Siobhan Coady.

Earlier in the day the party's outgoing president, Alf Apps, presented his report to members which included a financial update and also his thoughts on the interim leader of the party.

When Rae took over from Ignatieff after the election he agreed to a number of conditions set by the national board of directors. One was that he not contest the permanent leadership and another was that he not negotiate a merger with any other party.

Apps said Rae is doing his job as interim leader "extraordinarily well." He also said that the undertakings agreed to by Rae were "serious and solemn commitments made publicly."

Apps said in his opinion, any change to the conditions by the incoming national board of directors should only be made if Rae requests to be relieved of the commitments. If Rae requests to be released from the promise he made not to run, the changes should be made well in advance of the beginning of any permanent leadership race, Apps said.

It will be up to the board to decide how much lead-time should be required, he said.

The outgoing party president told reporters that this is the largest policy convention the Liberals have held since 1978. He said close to 3,000 people have registered and about one-third of them are under 30. He said young Liberals are helping to drive the rebuilding process.

The Liberals are about to pay off their debt and he said 2011 was the most successful fundraising year in the party's history. Apps said the Liberals have "turned the corner" on the mechanics of fundraising and are learning how to fill the gap between them and the Conservatives when it comes to bringing in cash.

On Saturday, delegates will be voting on a number of constitutional amendments proposed by the national board of directors that relate to how candidates and leaders are selected and how people join the party.

The board is proposing that people can join as "supporters" rather than full members, and it also wants the next leader to be elected using a system of primaries, where different regions of the country would vote at different times over the course of several weeks.

"I won't feel we failed if we don't get everything, I will feel we failed if we don't get anything," Apps said. "My sense is there is more courage than I expected."