Liberal debate will see 9 candidates on crowded stage

A total of nine candidates for the Liberal leadership will crowd the stage Sunday for the first leadership debate in Vancouver, the first in a series leading up to April 14 when the leader will be chosen.

Leadership contenders show their debating chops for the 1st time Sunday

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, seen at his leadership announcement in Montreal last October, is one of nine candidates set to face off in a debate this weekend. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

A total of nine candidates for the Liberal leadership will crowd the stage Sunday for a debate in Vancouver, the first in a series leading up to April 14 when the leader will be chosen.

Over the two-hour televised event, the combination of opening and closing statements as well as a series of 14 questions from moderator Randy Boissonault and the audience, means each contestant will get about 10 minutes total to actually speak.

Ian McKay, national director of the Liberal Party, began a media briefing Monday in Ottawa with the words, "Folks, we have a race," and said he was delighted with the number of candidates. But the nine-person roster means that candidates who have never run for political office of any kind, or who lost the last election they ran in, will have equal time with the perceived front-runner, Justin Trudeau.

"It's a challenge, but a great challenge", said McKay, adding that the event will be "tightly scripted." He said that the debate, to be held in a ballroom that holds 800 at Vancouver's Westin Bayshore Hotel, is already sold out. It will begin at 1p.m. PT.

The candidates' podium positions and speaking order have been chosen by lottery. Martha Hall Findlay will occupy the centre of the stage, with Trudeau on the far left, and Marc Garneau on the far right. George Takach, a little-known Toronto technology lawyer, has won first place in both the opening and closing statements. Marc Garneau will have the last word when candidates make their final closing statements.

The other candidates are David Bertschi, Martin Cauchon, Deborah Coyne, Karen McCrimmon and Joyce Murray.

The Vancouver debate questions will have several themes: foreign ownership, the environment, social housing, Pacific Rim trade, and electoral co-operation. The questions will be answered in mini-debates between teams of three candidates apiece.

There will be four more debates in Winnipeg, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal.

A new way of voting

The Liberal Party has chosen a new and, some think, risky method of picking a leader. People can sign up as supporters and vote in the leadership campaign without putting any money down, as long as they declare they are not members of other parties.

The supporters' votes will have the same value as the votes of party members, who paid $10 to join and who may have been loyal Liberals for years.

It means that the Average Joe can have as much say, or more, in picking the leader than the party elite. McKay said that the names and addresses of supporters will be cross-checked with software that can verify identity. Supporters can register until March 3.

The Liberal Party now has a list of 100,000 eligible voters, with about 45,000 supporters and 55,000 members, McKay said. But the supporter tally is likely significantly higher, because the count doesn't yet include supporters that have signed up on candidates' websites.

Voting week

Voters will be able to vote any time day or night, by email or by phone, between midnight, April 7 and about 3 p.m. on April 14, the day of the convention in Ottawa.

The vote is a preferential ballot, meaning the voters pick his or her first choice for leader, then second, third and so on. All 308 ridings have equal weight and are worth 100 points, meaning a small riding in P.E.I. is as valuable as a populous Toronto riding.

On the first round of voting, each candidate will be assigned points according to the ratio of the number of the first preference votes he or she received in each riding. The candidate who comes last overall must drop out, and his or her first choice ballots are distributed in each electoral district among the remaining leadership contestants.

The magic number is 15,401 points, and it's conceivable that a candidate might win that amount on the first ballot.

At the convention, to be held at the Westin hotel in Ottawa, results will be announced during a two-hour period in the early evening. McKay isn't revealing how the information will be rolled out — whether each ballot, for instance, might be announced with some time in-between in order to build suspense and make for an exciting convention.

"It will be a surprise," he said.