The NDP will choose its new leader at a convention in Toronto on March 24, the party announced Friday after a meeting to determine the rules for the leadership race.

"The leadership rules will provide for a vigourous and dynamic debate of ideas," party treasurer Rebecca Blaikie said after the meeting at an Ottawa hotel.

The rules were determined by the NDP's federal council, which is made up of close to 100 party members. Those interested in going for the job left vacant by Jack Layton's death last month will take the rules into consideration when making their decision. Layton, a Toronto MP and former councillor in the city, died Aug. 22 of cancer.

Candidates can begin now to declare their intentions to run for the leadership, but registration for the contest begins Sept. 15.

The council set the registration entry fee at $15,000, twice the $7,500 fee required in 2003, when Layton was elected leader.

Blaikie said the fee strikes the right balance.

"We know this is a serious job that people are applying for, but we're also a party of working people and we want to make sure that folks have the opportunity to participate in this race," she said.

A spending limit of $500,000 per leadership candidate was also set by the council.

NDP members can begin voting Feb.18, leading up to the convention a month later. The date and location for the convention were largely determined by the availability of a venue, and Blaikie said Toronto ended up being the place that met the NDP's requirements.

"We're quite happy with the decision and it will also allow us the opportunity to celebrate Jack in the city that he represented," she said. The event will be held at the Allstream Centre at Exhibition Place. The facility, formerly the historic Automotive Building, bills itself as Canada's greenest conference centre.

Party vows to stay united

The beginning of the leadership race coincides with the opening of the fall session of Parliament, which begins Sept. 19. In the coming months, the NDP will have to divide its focus between the race and duties as the Official Opposition.

Blaikie said she is confident that the 102-member caucus can handle the responsibilities and that members will stay united even if some compete with each other for the top job.

"I'm confident that we'll come out of this leadership race more unified than ever," she said.

Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel talked about party unity earlier in the day, when she made remarks at the start of the meeting.

"We must remain focused on the job of building our party," she said. "Jack showed us how we can do politics differently, how we can listen and respect other opinions and at the end of the day, remain united. And that's what we need to do today. We'll take difficult decisions but at the end of the day, we need to walk out of here and be united."

Olivia Chow, Layton's wife and a New Democrat MP, also addressed the federal council meeting. She said she thanked the council for its support over the last few weeks and trusts the leadership race rules would provide for a fair contest.

Chow also said the party is united behind Turmel, a rookie MP who is now leading caucus members grappling with the loss of Layton and getting used to their roles as Official Opposition MPs. Like Turmel, many are also new MPs, elected May 2, and had only a few weeks in the House of Commons before the summer break.

A number of NDP MPs, and the party’s president, have expressed interest in the leadership job but had said they were waiting to hear the rules before making a final decision.

With the rules now set, potential candidates are expected to start announcing their intentions within the coming days. Those who are MPs may use next week's caucus meeting in Quebec City to talk with their colleagues, gauge support, and then decide whether to go for the job.

Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics, MPs Peter Julian and Peggy Nash said they were both still considering running.

"It's not the rules that are going to determine whether I step in," Julian said. "These are decisions that have an influence on your family, on your personal life, on your family."

"I'm leaving the door open and I'm talking to as many people as I can."

Nash says she's seriously considering running but hasn't made the decision yet.

"Nothing in the rules as they have been announced today makes me less likely to throw my hat in," she said.

Friday's meeting did not have all council members in attendance. Julian and NDP president Brian Topp both recused themselves because they are considering standing as candidates and it would be a conflict for them to help shape the race’s rules.

The timing of a convention for the election of a leader had been a point of some debate in the wake of Layton's death. Layton wrote in a public letter released after he died that he wanted the leadership selection to happen as early as possible in 2012. Some took that to mean January even though Layton never specified a month in his letter. Topp said Layton wanted a leadership race to last about as long as the one in 2003 when he was elected, seven months.

Some potential candidates, including NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair, would prefer the contest to last several months because they need time to sell new memberships in the party to boost their support.

Quebec, where Mulcair is from, has particularly low membership levels in the party even though that province elected 59 MPs on May 2, up from just one, and was largely responsible for the NDP replacing the Liberals as Official Opposition.

Mulcair's office said Friday that he had no comment on the rules and will take time to consider them. Another MP, Charlie Angus, meanwhile, confirmed he is not going to run for leader. Others who are considering a run include Robert Chisholm, Paul Dewar, Megan Leslie and Libby Davies.

Olivia Chow thanks Turmel

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Toronto MP Olivia Chow spoke to the media after addressing the NDP's federal council meeting in Ottawa, where the rules for the leadership race to replace her late husband, Jack Layton, were being determined. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Turmel will lead the NDP until the permanent leader is chosen and Chow said Friday she thanked Turmel for her work and told reporters the  caucus is united behind the MP from Quebec.

"Nycole Turmel is already doing a very good job, and watch out Stephen Harper," Chow said. "Our team is united behind Nycole Turmel and I have no doubt she'll do a very, very good job in the House of Commons."

On who will take over from Turmel as permanent leader, Chow said she will participate in the leadership vote but will not endorse any candidate publicly. Chow, who was being pushed by some to consider running, does not plan on entering the race and said she is committed to her work as a member of Parliament. She wouldn't say whether she thought the new leader should be bilingual or possess any other specific qualifications or characteristics.

"There are lots of amazing talents in the NDP. I have great trust that there will be a wonderful leader being elected," said Chow.

One member, one vote?

On Thursday, Turmel attempted to clarify confusion over whether the NDP allows for union votes to carry more weight in a leadership contest.

During the last leadership convention in 2003, "affiliated members" of the party got a full 25 per cent of total votes cast, but the clause allowing that isn't in the newest constitution. It wasn't clear whether the federal council would still move to try and reserve a certain portion of votes for unions in this leadership contest.

Turmel said the party now uses a one member, one vote system meaning unions would not be getting special status.

"In 2006, the convention changed the NDP constitution," she said. "If the NDP want to change that formula once again, they'll have to go back to the next convention to do so."

"The constitution is clear: it's one member, one vote," Turmel added.

The president of Canada's largest union, Paul Moist, weighed in on the role of unions in the party on Friday and the voting confusion.

"There is no issue over this question.  There is no weighted union voting for NDP leadership campaigns," Moist, head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said in a statement. "In 2006, at the Quebec City convention, the constitution was amended to ensure that organized labour's role in the Party was maintained in its structures and in its membership, and to ensure that the one member, one vote principle applies to the process for electing our leader. The above facts have been lost over the course of the past week," he said.

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