The Liberal party needs to play a long game on leadership
May 8, 2011

The Liberal party needs to play a long game on leadership

After its crushing defeat on May 2nd, the Liberal party has some considerable soul searching to do. Not least among its problems is the task that has recently proved most difficult for them: choosing a leader. How it accomplishes this task will be of critical importance to the future of the party and the seeds for this choice are being sown now.

The general methodology is going to be the election of an interim leader and then a leadership race after some amount of time to find a new leader. The details of how that is done, however, will make a big difference. Who the interim leader is, whether that leader is considered a candidate for the official leadership race, how long the delay until the full leadership race is and whether the interim leader is featured prominently are all important questions to be answered.

In the post-Chrétien era, the Liberal part has not had success with choosing successful and popular leaders. Martin was never able to get outside of the shadow of Chrétien both on favorable and unfavorable  issues and could not lead past these skeletons. The 2006 leadership race turned out to be a decision not to go with either of the two polarizing (within the caucus) candidates of Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff and instead go with Stéphane Dion who despite having less vocal opposition in the caucus was entirely ineffective at leading. Michael Ignatieff was rushed into power in 2008 without a proper leadership race and he too was never able to escape from the initial volley of TV ads the Conservatives painted of him in a negative light. To put it simply, if the Liberals want to retain relevancy they must find a strong leader. They cannot flippantly rush out a new cookie cutter leader, it has to be the product of genuine leadership and discussion.

As a model for choosing a new leader, the major US parties have managed to come up with a leadership model that is effective at churning out a very genuine democratic debate about leadership. Indeed, the leadership process is very long and drawn out but accomplishes an important task: it increases awareness of the candidates and engages the citizenry over a long period of time. The 2012 presidential elections are a ways away but the multitude of Republican candidates gets a continual cycle of attention and the recent preliminary debate - despite missing most of the major contenders - has been a major political discussion topic this week. The potential downside is a fragmenting of the base - Hillary supporters still haven't quite forgiven Obama for that defeat -  but in the case of the Liberals, fragmentation of the decimated party is a much smaller issue than driving engagement and excitement. Of course, the party has a constitution that outlines leadership procedures that occur over but a couple days but the preliminary posturing - much like the Republicans today - can and should take place over some time.

The interim leader should be in place for a long time. Chrétien has endorsed Bob Rae for this position and suggested a length of time of two years before the leadership race. More on Rae later, but I agree with the time span. The Liberals have four years to get back in track. They need buzz and building excitement from a leadership race not now or in six months but in such time as a new election is in sight. The political landscape is not yet clear and we don't know how the massive changes are going to play out in the politics or popular opinion. The added insight from time will be important. That said, it can't be the other extreme of waiting three and a half years. Both Dion and Ignatieff suffered from short amounts of time being vetted by the public before thrown into elections. The two year mark is excellent as it leaves two years to learn the landscape, do the necessary soul searching, and build momentum at a time when the future leader still has two years to cast his or her mark on the Canadian stage.

I think it is a mistake to put a potential leadership candidate as interim leader. According to the Liberal constitution, this is a bit of a grey area. It is certainly not explicitly forbidden but there are nonetheless distinct advantages for an interim leader to transition to a full leader (such as the interim leader getting a vote on the national executive) that represent a conflict of interest. Moreover, whoever gets to be the interim leader gets an enormous advantage in media exposure over any other contenders and if there is to be a robust leadership debate there will be a tension between wanting to give support to the interim leader and running against that person in the leadership debate. We have seen in 2008 how the fact that Ignatieff was chosen to be the interim leader transitioned into him being a full leader. Of course, there was no official leadership contest like there will be this time but the advantages given to the interim leader are huge and in the Ignatieff case turned out to be very detrimental to the party. As such, we must insist that the interim leader is not going to be a leadership contender and merely a steward of the party until such time as the political landscape is solidified and a clear direction forward starts materializing.

We should thus resist Chrétien's endorsement of Bob Rae for interim Liberal leader. As one of the leading potential candidates - and with past contenders like Gerrard Kennedy not regaining their seats - Bob Rae should run as a contender in the leadership race and hence not as interim leader (this is certainly not an endorsement of Bob Rae on my behalf, by the way). There is also a larger issue regarding the idea of a potential merger of the Liberal party with the NDP which may never occur due to realpolitik but is nonetheless a natural question that will float around. In 2008, Chrétien is well known to have made overtures with Ed Broadbent, the former NDP leader, about the idea of a merger and is now endorsing a man best known for his stint as NDP premier in Ontario. This question will of course have to be addressed in a serious way and it is quite possible in two years the leadership race might have this as a central issue. Having Chrétien push for Rae in this way seeds the discussion in a very particular way and should be minimized.

One of the interesting aspects of parliamentary style democracy is that legislative leaders and party leaders are the same people. In the US there is currently no fixed Republican leader and the decision of who will be the candidate for president is drawn out over a long time as I mentioned. There are however Republican leaders of the respective legislative bodies and a chair of the party itself, none of whom will become presidential candidates. The Liberal caucus absolutely does need to have a leader of that caucus in parliament. But the emphasis should be just that and the party should not consider that interim leader as a leader of the party as a whole or as a candidate for future Prime Minister but almost as a procedural necessity of a parliamentary system. In Canada, while we only ever vote for the people in our own ridings the overwhelming majority of the public discussion and politics occurs at the level of the national leaders and they represent enormous importance in the politics. That importance for the Liberal leader should be deemphasized in the short term and instead an attempt to build up the party itself as an establishment and not as just a new personality in the leadership.

One example of the kinds of power the interim leader wields should be with regards to whipping of its caucus in parliament to ensure votes. Typically, Liberals and Conservatives have used this process extensively to ensure homogenized voting blocks from their respective caucuses. This is actually a difficulty with our system because it removes the possibility of dissension of parliamentarians from the leaders and thus centralizes power in the leaders. The NDP, however, had typically made much less use of the whip and allowed its members to vote as they choose. Largely this has been an issue of realpolitik because as a third party the NDP votes rarely make the big difference. Now that Harper has a majority (and thus nearly absolute power) and that the Liberals have been relegated to third party status they must be willing to remove the whipping and allow caucus members to vote as they wish. This will encourage the kind of genuine debate among the party as differences and priorities emerge opposed to simply everyone following lock step along with an interim leader whose importance should be minimized. 

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