Liberals call in Saturday to debate leadership timing

Federal Liberals will decide Saturday whether to delay choosing a permanent leader until next year or even 2013.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and federal Liberals will hold a convention by phone Saturday to vote on delaying a leadership race while the party rebuilds. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Federal Liberals will decide Saturday whether to delay choosing a permanent leader until next year or even 2013.

The beleaguered party, currently being led by Toronto MP Bob Rae on an interim basis, is holding an "extraordinary convention" to vote on changing the party's constitution so that a leadership vote can be postponed.

More than 2,500 Liberals are expected to participate as registered delegates in what will be the first teleconference convention for the party. Liberal MPs, party officials and delegates will be calling in from around the country Saturday afternoon and will dial-a-vote to weigh in on the resolutions.

"This is kind of a new thing for us," Liberal MP Marc Garneau told CBC News.

The party found itself without a leader in the wake of the May 2 election that resulted in Liberals losing official opposition status to the NDP and dropping to just 34 seats. Michael Ignatieff was among the defeated MPs and he stepped down as Liberal leader the day after the election.

According to the party's current constitution, a new leader should be chosen at a leadership convention by the end of October, but Liberals have overwhelmingly told the party's executive that they need to rebuild and take their time choosing Ignatieff's successor.

That feedback prompted the executive to propose changing the constitution so Liberals aren't rushed into picking the person who will try to mount a comeback from their unprecedented place in the corner of the House of Commons.

The resolution that will be voted on Saturday amends the rules so the party executive can later set a leadership convention date, some time between Nov. 1, 2012, and Feb. 28, 2013. The resolution needs two-thirds support to pass.

Rae favours leadership vote delay

Successful passage of the resolution should satisfy Rae, who had said he wanted more than just a "summer job" if he was going to lead the party temporarily. Interim leader candidates had to commit to closing the door on seeking the job permanently.

In an interview with CBC News on Friday, Rae said he will be delighted if the executive's proposal is accepted because the process of choosing a new leader shouldn't be rushed .

"This is going to take a bit of time and it's important to let it have time," he said.

Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, said he has experience in helping organizations turn themselves around, adding that the proposed timeframe would give the party enough time to get back on its feet.

"I'd like to be able to hand over to the new leader a party that's in better shape, better financial shape and generally better state," he said. "I think we can do that." 

Rae, who competed against Ignatieff for the leadership in 2006, where both lost to Stéphane Dion, will make remarks near the beginning of the teleconference convention Saturday. That portion of the event will be livestreamed on the Liberal website.

Rae said his remarks will be "realistic but upbeat."

"We got defeated and we have to change," he said, explaining the realistic portion of his speech. According to the interim leader, Liberals need to understand the reasons behind their defeat, and set about connecting better with Canadians.

Delegates to debate via telephone

The resolution on delaying the leadership race is expected to pass, but those opposed will have a chance to debate. Some comments on the Liberal Party website indicate there are members who feel the executive is trying to appease Rae by putting off the leadership race for so long, and that the permanent leader should be chosen sooner.

Rae said he expects there will be debate, as some Liberals may want a shorter timeframe, and some may want longer. Delegates had until noon Friday to submit subamendments to the resolution, and those too will be up for debate.

Participants who signal their desire to speak will press a number on their keypad and have one minute to say their piece.

Retired MP and former Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken will moderate the call and debate. Delegates will also vote on a resolution that sets the next policy convention for January 2012 in Ottawa. Like the NDP and Conservatives, Liberals were supposed to hold their policy convention this month, but cancelled it when the election was called.

The NDP is holding its convention this weekend  in Vancouver, where the mood will be far more celebratory than on the Liberal call. The NDP is not only marking its achievement of becoming the Official Opposition for the first time in its history, but also its 50th anniversary.

Holding a teleconference convention is being billed by Liberals as a cost-effective and accessible way to consult the party membership. Delegates paid $20 to participate on behalf of their riding associations.

Party organizers say they are working hard to recruit new members to the party and to better communicate with grassroots members. Disengagement with the party base was among the problems cited by Liberals in the wake of their worst election result in history.