Long Liberal leadership campaign enters final stretch

A lengthy Liberal leadership campaign characterized as predictable but also as an experiment in openness entered the home stretch today, with candidates making final pitches to supporters.

Race drew in new supporters because of changes to selection process

Liberal leadership candidates, from left: Martha Hall Findlay, Joyce Murray, Karen McCrimmon and Justin Trudeau, who are participating in the national showcase Saturday in Toronto. Candidates not shown include Deborah Coyne and Martin Cauchon. (CP)

A Liberal leadership campaign that has been characterized by its seeming unendingness, its "experiment" in opening up the leader selection process to the public, and, to some extent, its predictability, is in the final stretch.

The six remaining canadidates deliver speeches to supporters and party members Saturday at a "national showcase" event in Toronto, before voting is opened up to the 127,000 registered party members and a new class of party "supporters."

Nine candidates were in place when the starting pistol went off last summer, some whose only political experience consisted of losing electoral races. John Mraz, a former Liberal organizer, thinks the party should have set more stringent conditions for potential candidates at the outset.

He says would-be candidates shouldn't have been allowed to enter the race "until they had all the money [for the $75,000 entry fee], and not just borrow it."

Mraz added that each candidate should have started with "at least 10, or 20 or even 50 supporters in two thirds of the ridings … you'd have to have representation from every province and territory. And then you would have had a much narrower race and a much more vigorous debate."

Instead, candidates were allowed to borrow the hefty entry fee and had to collect only 300 signatures from party members in order to run. (During the campaign, George Takach, Marc Garneau and David Bertschi dropped out.)

Mraz thinks the large number of candidates, many of whom had no realistic chance of winning, made the debates dull and guaranteed that no candidate was seriously tested.

But the Liberal Party did something never done before in a Canadian leadership race: it opened up the selection process so that virtually anyone could vote. The objective, according to the party's national director Ian McKay, was to "do our small part to change the discourse, to change participation, to change people’s attitudes, to change party politics."

Those who responded to the Liberal Party's wide-cast net were named "supporters," as opposed to party members. Supporters can vote without paying a membership fee or joining the party, as long as they're at least 18 and not members of any other political party. 

Less than half of the signed-up supporters took the next step of registering to vote, and it remains to be seen how many actually vote during the week of April 7 to 14.

Nevertheless, McKay said, about half of the supporters told the party they've never been involved in politics before. Even if they don't vote, he said, the party plans to contact them in the future.

Liberals postponed race for 18 months

The leadership race has seemed long because it was almost two years ago when leader Michael Ignatieff resigned after stewarding the Liberal Party through its worst election rout in its history.

Normally a new leader would have to be chosen within six months, but the party changed its rules and postponed its convention by a year and a half.

If the leadership race had taken place in October 2011, it’s unlikely Quebec MP Justin Trudeau would have run. He had said he wasn’t ready and his family was too young.

But the delay gave him time to put together a formidable organization. During the campaign, he has raised more money, signed up more supporters and attracted bigger crowds than any of the other candidates. If he wins, he won't be inheriting a divided caucus because almost every Liberal MP has lined up behind him. 

One of  those who hasn't is Kingston MP Ted Hsu, a young physicist fluent in French and Mandarin, regarded as a rising star in the Liberal Party.  Hsu first supported Marc Garneau and is now supporting Vancouver MP Joyce Murray.

Hsu says he will support Trudeau "100 per cent" if he wins, and admits that Trudeau can attract hundreds of people to events in ridings that haven't elected a Liberal "for a long, long time."

But, Hsu said in a telephone interview that he's in favour of electoral reform, a platform of Murray’s. "We're the third party and it is very important not to have a Conservative majority government from 2015 to 2019. I think it's a conversation worth having. And Joyce is putting it front and centre."

If the main story of the campaign has been Trudeau's rise in popularity, a secondary tale is the momentum of Joyce Murray with her robust sustainability platform and proposal of electoral co-operation with the Green Party and the NDP for the 2015 election.

Race shocker

The shocker during the leadership race was the withdrawal of MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau who had been widely viewed as the chief threat to Trudeau. When Garneau revealed that an internal poll he commissioned showed he couldn't possibly beat Trudeau, the race seemed to be over.

Bob Rae, who has been the Liberal Party's interim leader, denied in an interview with CBC Radio's The House, to be aired Saturday, that a coronation will have taken place if Trudeau wins.

"I think the coronation stuff is nonsensical," Rae said. "There may have been coronations in the past, but this is not one of them. This is one where each candidate has to go out and win support and the loyalty and affection and the respect of tens of thousands of people in order to become the leader of our party. That's no coronation."

On Saturday in Toronto the Liberals are staging a national showcase in which the six remaining candidates will make their pitches to voters. The new leader will be announced April 14 after a week of voting, online and by telephone.