Friday, May 20, 2011

Why the interim leader shouldn’t run for permanent leader

There has been much debate in Liberal circles about the insistence by the national executive that the interim leader of the party agree to not run for the permanent leadership, and even more debate with the announcement by Bob Rae yesterday that he will seek the interim leadership of the party.

Some see this stipulation as some sort of anti-Rae clause, designed specifically to bind him. I don’t know what’s in the heads of the national executive, but the fact is this is a rule that would apply to anyone interested in seeking the interim/permanent leadership: anyone will have to choose which job they wish to go for.

Rules vs. promises

I’ll get to why I support this “rule” in a moment but first, I’d like to make one point that seems to be missed in much of the debate: there is no actual “rule” here at all.

Under the Liberal constitution, the national board (aka the executive) pick the interim leader, with advice from the caucus. It’s important to note too the caucus’ role is to advise, not advise and consent – the executive isn’t bound by their recommendation.

And the executive is free to base their decision on any criteria they want. They’ve chosen to publicly put some criteria out there: bilingual, support from caucus, no merger talk without a mandate, and won’t run for permanent leader. These aren’t published rules; these are just criteria the executive is choosing to base their choice on.

Once the interim leader is named by the executive, there is no real enforceability of these rules because these rules don’t really exist – they were just screening criteria the executive used in making their choice. And promises made by the candidate.

So there is no “rule” saying an interim leader can’t run for permanent leader. There is nothing in the constitution or the bylaws making it illegal. A new executive could be elected at the next biennial and say “we’ve changed the rules, it's cool now” but there is actually no "rule" to change.

What the current executive is asking for, essentially, is a promise from those seeking to become interim leader that they won’t later run for permanent leader, using this position as a springboard. That’s what it boils down to: a promise. A “rule change” by the next executive may provide political cover for an interim leader that decides to run for permanent leader, but it would still amount to a broken promise by that person. Nothing is stopping them from breaking that promise as, again, no actual rule exists. The only cost for breaking their promise, if any, would be political, and it would be determined by the membership in their voting decision.

Why interim to permanent is a bad idea

With those procedural details out of the way, just why is it a bad idea to let the interim leader contest the permanent leadership? There are many reasons, really.

The interim leader has a good deal of power that would give them an advantage in the race. Consider, for example, that many of the leadership candidates are likely to be caucus members and caucus support is always a key indicator to watch. The interim leader controls a lot of things such as who gets what critic portfolio, who get to hold positions such as whip, and even who gets to ask questions in question period. If you want to miss a vote or have a day off from house duty, you need the whip's permission.

If the interim leader is competing with fellow caucus members for permanent leadership, that opens up a hornet’s nest of possible conflicts. Are they going to give their rivals prominent roles and questions, or relegate them to the back of the back bench? And how about caucus members that have chosen to support a rival? Even for an interim leader with the best of intentions, every move is going to be second-guessed and examined for motivations and agendas.

Also, the interim leader’s time is and should be focused on representing and running the party inside the House of Commons and building the organization and structure outside it. Even if we delay the leadership vote to next spring, which I favour, the race will begin now and candidates will begin campaigning across the country. It will necessarily mean time away from the House. We need an interim leader not distracted by a leadership campaign, focused on representing and building the party.

Finally, with all the advantages an interim leader has (the increased media and public profile and attention) there’s another major reason I reject their seeking the permanent leadership: they’re not given that advantage by the membership writ large. As I noted, the interim leader is anointed by the executive with advice from caucus; not by the membership. Allowing them to use the interim job as a springboard would amount to the party elites giving their preferred leadership candidate a huge advantage, and that would be a slap in the face to the membership at large who feel picking from a level playing field should be their prerogative, and don't want the deck stacked for an anointed choice.

That’s why I think letting the interim leader seek the permanent leadership is wrong. And while there is no “rule” to be enforced, I do think asking for this promise to be made is appropriate.

What about Bob and Marc?

I think we should take any personal politics out of this. People have pointed-out that many of these same executive members had no problem with Michael Ignatieff using the interim spot to jump to the permanent job in late 2008/09, and they’re absolutely right. It’s the sort of hypocrisy that has led many of us to lose faith in the current executive.

Two wrongs, however, do not make a right, and a bad decision shouldn’t make a precedent. If you thought it was wrong then you should still think it’s wrong now, regardless of the personalities involved.

I supported Ignatieff in the last leadership race, but I strongly disagreed with his decision to grab the interim leadership. When his team polled supporters before the decision, I said so. And when he did it anyway, I said so publicly. It was a bad decision that needlessly alienated party members and made it much more difficult for him to unify the party.

It was wrong then, and it would be wrong now.

Marc Garneau and Bob Rae have both thrown their hats into the interim leader ring, and both have agreed to respect the “rule” on interim leaders not seeking the permanent job. Personally, I found Bob’s letter to be a bit ambiguously worded; I understand his public statements have been a little firmer. I think either of them would be excellent choices as interim leader.

I will choose to take them both at their word; that they’re promising to not seek the permanent leadership if they become interim leader, period. There are no “rules” to enforce these promises, just their word as gentlemen. If that can’t be enough, our problems run deeper than we think.

And finally

On Tuesday, Alf Apps told us we could expect the text of the constitutional amendments we’ll be asked to vote on by today, at the latest. Yeah, not gonna happen. Now I’m hearing maybe late today or tomorrow, or maybe Tuesday. Let’s just say, this is becoming slightly farcical. Communication remains the biggest problem here.

That said, there is a new communication posted on the party web site (apparently it hasn’t been e-mailed to members). Today is the deadline to join the party if you’d like to vote on our mystery plan, and you can sign up as a delegate now online as well.

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Anonymous said...

so what happens if poll after poll say the interim leader would win the next election? Do you believe the party wouldn't change the rules in a flash? I think Mr.Rae knows this and it's why he wants to be interim leader for now.

JF said...

I wonder if the Interim Leader not being able to run for the permanent leadership will be one of those forthcoming constitutional amendment announcements? I mean why not make it official?

Dan F said...

If polls are showing the Interim leader as being positioned to win the next election, it will only be because of his position as interim leader, having not been subjected to attack ads, the voters will not have the negative barrage of messaging that will undoubtedly accompany the appointment of the permanent leader. I'm reconsidering my view that an early leadership vote and considering that it might be better now to wait until just before the next election to appoint the permanent leader, in order to prevent the attack messaging from sticking as it did with the last 2 leaders.