Extraordinary Convention – Signs of Life
A year ago from next Monday, the Liberal Party of Canada embarked on a period of renewal and grassroots engagement beginning with a well-attended telephone town hall called the ‘Extraordinary Convention’. This meeting of Liberals from across the country by telephone was the first major event the Party held after a crushing defeat in May 2011. The conversation focused on establishing a time period for calling the Party’s next leadership convention, thereby charting the path forward in the rebuilding process. It also led to determinations about how an interim leader would be selected and when the next Party Biennial Convention would be held.
On that call, Liberals from all over Canada voiced their opinions about how the Party would move forward and the best manner in which to do so. We heard the voices of such respected members as Stephane Dion and even our own friends from our own EDAs. The Party had an honest conversation about where we stood and came together to make an important decision about our collective future. At the time, it was probably the most ‘grassroots’ thing the Party had ever done. Coming so soon after the May election, it was a very positive sign of life from a political group the media and much of the public were already writing off.
Biennial Convention – Grassroots Take Hold
Just over six months after the Extraordinary Convention, Liberals from across the country convened in Ottawa at the brand new Ottawa Convention Centre to select a new National Board, including a new President for the Party. By the close of the race, it was largely thought, at least in the media, that it was a race between two candidates. One was Sheila Copps, former Deputy Prime Minister, who had decided to run even before the May defeat. The other was Mike Crawley, former President of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario), who entered the race the previous fall. The race was long seen as Copps’ to win but on January 15, 2012, the final tally came back with Mike Crawley 26 votes ahead. What began from a single editorial piece in a newspaper became a campaign that dominated online and eventually real world discussion. At a convention of 3,300 strong, Liberals held a competitive race filled with substantive discussion and ultimately selected a President from the ground up.
The National Board and Interim Leader Bob Rae
Today marked an announcement from the National Board that the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada will be elected in April 2013. However it is less likely that this day will be remembered for this as it will for being the day that Bob Rae announced clearly that he would not be a candidate for that leadership. Rae was long expected to run and was thought to be announcing his decision to run soon after the Board declared the parameters for the leadership race. Instead, Rae told Caucus and the public he would remain on as interim leader, as pledged a year ago upon taking up the role.
I believe Rae has done a tremendous job as interim leader and would at the same time make a strong leader and capable Prime Minister. However, politics is as much about talent, skill and suitability for a role as it is being in the right place at the right time. For Rae, that could have been 2006, but several obstacles prevented him from winning then and his chances have only slid since. As Jean Chretien outlined in his autobiography, Bob Rae had not officially joined the Liberal fold early enough to win in 2006, despite Chretien personally asking him to do so. Rae was also cursed with having governed as Premier of Ontario and doing so during difficult economic times. No Canadian has ever gone from the Premier’s chair to the Prime Minister’s and Rae is no different (Charles Tupper was Premier before becoming Prime Minister but governed provincially in pre-Confederation times). Even if Rae had governed during relatively good times, Canadians do not seem to care for politicians with long records to reflect on. And Party members hoping to see renewal and change are likely to feel much the same way.
None of those facts prevented Rae from briefly attempting to take the leadership after Stephane Dion stepped down in late 2008. Rae might have won then if not for Ignatieff strategists expertly navigating their man into the ‘interim’ leadership position (something Rae would later do as well), or if Rae had not taken the publicly popular position of talks of merging with the NDP that was less popular with Caucus.
Even despite these two false starts, Rae was expected to trot to victory this time around so long as Justin Trudeau stayed out of the race. But with increased pressure on Trudeau to enter, and personal polling numbers for Rae hovering around where they were in 2006, a clear shot at victory seemed less possible in recent weeks. But this was still not the clincher that caused Rae’s announcement this afternoon. That was caused by the most unlikely thing: social media and the public discussions of Party members.
As late as Sunday, Rae was thought to be running for sure. It was said that he had a team in place and was personally ready to go. But after a story broke on CBC News last Thursday confirming that the National Board would approve Rae’s candidacy (despite the fact that the Board did not meet until today), enormous backlash erupted across various social media platforms. A Rae candidacy had always sparked almost as much negative feedback as positive even as far back as 2006, but this was something different. This was Party members speaking up loudly about how they wanted to see the Party proceed with its leadership selection process. Sometime between Thursday and today, the membership came in loud and clear.
The continued stewardship of the Party on an interim basis by Bob Rae is very positive for the Party. Rae is an able parliamentarian and will provide a steady hand during what could be a very interesting leadership race. During his press conference today, Rae seemed more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him. Despite many beginning to ponder when he will retire from politics, I instead think this talented man has greatness left to give, especially as a transitional leader for the Party. Ted Kennedy’s best work came after the burden of running for the Presidency was lifted off his shoulders. I suspect Bob Rae will do the same, unburdened by the need to be too careful and able to unleash his full parliamentary genius on our opposition.
Leadership Convention – Fertile Ground
Though Trudeau may still enter, the Party currently faces a leadership situation with no clear frontrunner(s) for the first time in our history. King had fashioned himself as the right-hand man of a dying Laurier long before the 1919 leadership race. St. Laurent was the hand-picked choice of King on his own retirement, and Pearson the choice of St. Laurent. While the race was crowded in 1968 with a number of extremely talented individuals including several cabinet ministers, Pierre Trudeau entered the convention hall in Ottawa as the clear favourite. 1984 was a clear battle between Turner and Chretien just as 1990 was between Chretien and Martin. 2003 was always Paul Martin’s to win and Ignatieff was touted as the next Prime Minister of Canada and Liberal leader long before he even returned to Canada to run for leader in 2006. Though Dion and to a lesser extent Pierre Trudeau may have been surprise choices at the time, those races were never thought to be anyone’s game where pundits and Party members alike watched the race unfold with no clue how it might turn out. I can’t think of anything more exciting for a political Party and if Bob Rae’s greatest gift is strong leadership through a difficult period of rebuilding, then perhaps an truly open contest for Party leader is his second greatest gift.
The membership, by being so vocal in the last week, demanded the kind of race they wish to have. Over the past year, the on-the-ground membership have decided a great deal. After this past week and the influence the membership has wielded, it seems to me that the Party has never prepared more fertile ground for the grassroots to flourish.