Thursday, September 08, 2011

Fundamental myths about the Liberal Party and the interim leader

Let me start by making one thing perfectly clear: there is no rule that prevents interim Liberal leader Bob Rae from deciding to seek the permanent leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Once again, THERE IS NO RULE!

I resort to repetition and brief caps-lock because I’m hearing this false premise repeated again and again, by people that should really know better. And it’s pissing me off.

For example, when announcing her candidacy for the Liberal presidency yesterday, Sheila Copps made this statement:

Sheila Copps says she's running for president of the Liberal Party and she wouldn't stop Bob Rae from running as leader, despite rules that say the interim leader can't join the race.

That’s nice, but it’s not up to Ms. Copps, or whomever the next Liberal president is. Lawrence Martin takes the meme further in iPolitics today:

As party president, Copps couldn’t single-handedly change the rules, but she could certainly help the cause.

Copps knows every trick in the book. So does Bob Rae. They are a powerful duo.

They may well be the Batman and Robin of Liberal politics, but that doesn’t change the face that no trickery is needed: THERE IS NO RULE TO CHANGE.

Let’s back up a minute. When Michael Ignatieff announced his resignation (he was an interim leader, by the way, who ‘ran’ for the permanent leadership) it was up to the Liberal national board to pick an interim leader, with advice from caucus. The board chose to set several criteria on which they would base their decision, such a support from caucus, bilingualism, and a commitment to not seek the permanent leadership.

If those interested in the position didn’t meet those criteria, the board wouldn’t consider them. But once the board made their choice, the criteria become moot. It's not enforceable in any way. It's not codified into any constitution or rules of procedure. It was a rule to pick the interim leader, and that's done.

What it amounted to was a promise. Bob Rae, in deciding to seek and accept the interim leadership, promised to the caucus, the national board and to Liberal members that he would stay focused on party re-building, and would not seek the permanent leadership.

It’s not a rule in law that needs to be changed with tricks by an incoming party president. It’s a promise by Mr. Rae. And there is nothing at all preventing him from changing his mind. Ms. Copps is right on one thing, though:

"If Bob made a commitment [not to run], he can answer to the voters in the leadership race on that commitment.”

Exactly. No rule prevents Mr. Rae from running; just his word. The word I and thousands of other Liberals chose to accept at face-value. If he chooses to break his word to us and run anyway, it will be up to him to explain to us why. And in the end, the members will have the final say in what consequence, if any, breaking his word would have. Not the party executive.

A kabuki play

My concern is that this sowing of confusion around the rules for seeking the interim leadership is deliberate; a scripted political kabuki play.

There are no actual rules to change. But was a new executive to pass a motion deciding “we’ve changed the rules, the interim leader can run” as some seem to be advocating, it would serve one transparent purpose: provide political cover should Mr. Rae decide to break his word and run for the permanent spot. “Well, I wasn’t going to, but I promised to ‘follow the rules’ set by the executive and, hey, they’ve changed them, so it’s cool now.”

I’ve had a nagging fear of this scenario from day one. But it would be a farce. Still, I fear the national executive elections in January risk becoming a proxy battle to set-up such a scenario.

Why shouldn't he run?

One comment I hear often is “if, in two years, he’s super-popular and we’re doing well in the polls why wouldn’t we let him run?” Well, again, he can run if he wants to and if we’re willing to overlook the promise-breaking, that’s our choice. But there are fundamental reasons why I have insisted from day one that the interim leader, whomever that would be, should be someone who would not seek the permanent leadership.

From a post I wrote in May:

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.

End the games

All these objections still hold true. I would add that having a full and open leadership race is a key part of the renewal process that we need to be undertaking. Allowing someone anointed by the party elites to use the interim leadership (the time period of which they successfully lobbied to lengthen, by the way) as a party-funded head-start to the campaign would be unfair to the other candidates, and would make it difficult, if not impossible, to have the fair and open race we must have.

Finally, I should note that Mr. Rae has insisted from day one that he doesn't want to run for the permanent leadership, and has no intention of doing so. I believe he even mentioned his spouse would never let him. All this talk of rule-changing scenarios has come from others.

Look, here’s the bottom line: if he wants to run, he can run. I will view it as a broken promise and a character issue; others can make their own decision. But don’t mislead us with poppycock about rule-changing, and don’t take us for fools.

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Karl said...


I'm not taking issue with the overall thrust of your post but the following part is to my mind a bit of an unfair characterization of the events in May-June:

"...allowing someone anointed by the party elites to use the interim leadership (the time period of which they successfully lobbied to lengthen, by the way)"

The elites, and by that I presume that you mean the Board and Caucus, had agreed upon a date range for interim leadership.

These "elites" are of course mandated by the Constitution to pick an Interim Leader in the circumstances that then obtained. Of necessity, they were also called upon to determine the duration of that role. They did so through a series of negotiations, informed by views from the Board, the Caucus and also C.O.P., I believe.

On the eve of the Special Convention, your efforts sought to shorten that timeline. That was entirely your prerogative but you can hardly be surprised that, in response, those who had accepted the Caucus-Board consensus as a compromise then proposed an amendment of their own to adopt a longer date range. I'm not sure why you say that this latter group was in any way more or less "elite" than the advocates of either of the other two main options.

Had your amendment not been submitted, then the original consensus would likely have been stood (and hence there would have been no "lobbying").

If by the above paragraph you meant to say that your own lobbying of members for a shorter period was unsuccessful and others' lobbying of members for a longer period was successful, then I suppose that would be a more balanced characterization but I would prefer to see it as the Party having had three options in front of it: the original consensus along with a shorter option and a longer option and that members chose, pretty decisively, which of the three they preferred.

I also think it fair to say that these "elites" were not of one mind on the issue and that a number of members of the Board would have supported the original consensus and that that was likely true of the Caucus as well

It was a secret ballot so we will never know how the votes broke down but I don't think that you can say with any certainty that "elites" split any differently on the issue than members overall.



Jeff said...


What I was referring to was the selection of the interim leader, by the board on advice of caucus. I don't object to this process; the membership at large selecting an interim leader isn't practical. My point was only that the interim leader is selected by a small group of elites, and not the membership at large, and therefore doesn't have the legitimacy of a directly-elected leader. I made the statement to inform my objection of allowing an interim leader to run for the permanent spot. The interim leader would have a major advantage in seeking the permanent spot, and that would be an advantage conferred by those that made the person interim leader. It's an unbalancing of the race; the board giving one candidate an advantage over other potential candidates. That's the nature of the objection I was making in the quoted section.

On my proposal to shorten the leadership timeline, I disagree with the narrative you put forward. Yes, the board consulted and proposed one timeline. I, and many, felt it was too long. I decided to propose an amendment. Other people felt the board's timeline was too short, and several of them decided to propose their own amendments.

You speculate that if I hadn't proposed my own amendment, the board's original timeline would have stood. I have seen no evidence to support that hypothesis; that's purely speculative. Indeed, I'd heard other amendments were being prepared before I submitted mine. At the end of the day, as you said, people voted.

Jeff said...

And the idea that a group accepted the board's timeline, but when I proposed a shorter one they had to propose a longer one, doesn't hold water. Why not just defeat my sub-amendment and support the original timeline? They simply wanted a longer timeline; that's their prerogative and the membership agreed. But there's no logical argument that it had to flow from my proposal that I can see.

A P said...


What you have sketched out is one route by which Bob Rae may have the interim leader tag removed. Let me suggest another one which I suspect is what is really happening. Everyone assumes that the leadership race will attract many candidates. I'm not sold on that. What I think will happen is that if Bob Rae's poll numbers look good and if he really acquits himself well in his current position don't be surprised if there will be a movement to keep him as leader coupled with many potential candidates declaring that they will not seek the leadership and say that Rae should be leader. Imagine that only one or two token people put their names forth for the leadership -- the pressure will be enormous for them to exit and let Rae come up the middle. What you are witnessing is a strategy whereby in two years time the Liberal Party will be asking Rae to stay on rather that Rae asking the Party if he can lead it.

Karl said...

You pose the question: "Why not just defeat my sub-amendment and support the original timeline? They simply wanted a longer timeline; that's their prerogative and the membership agreed. But there's no logical argument that it had to flow from my proposal that I can see."

Because the "consensus" timeline was itself a compromise between those who thought that the Leadership could or should be decided in 2012 and those who believed it better to make the decision in 2013.

The original timeline voted by the Board ran from November 1, 2012 until January 31, 2013 and was extended at the request of Caucus to February 28, 2013 simply to make 2013 a viable option (January being difficult to pull off, what with the holidays, winter, etc.).

Your amendment would have shortened the end to November 30, 2012 and could have been expected to have the formal leadership race underway as early as April 2012. For many, that was far too early and although they had been prepared to put some water in their wine for the original consensus, when that was prospectively going to be abbreviated, they returned to their original view that it should ONLY be held in 2013.

Mark said...

"And in the end, the members will have the final say..."

That is, of course, unless the non-members do.