Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If we’re betting everything on leadership, Bob Rae must be clear on intentions

Reflecting on last weekend’s Liberal Party of Canada biennial convention, where delegates voted against reducing the powers of the leader and put much of their hope for rebuilding into one key initiative – admitting supporters into the party ranks and giving them a vote for the next leader – it seems clear to me we’re betting much of our hope for a revival and return to relevance on a leadership race that will culminate with a vote by all members and supporters sometime betweenMarch 1 and June 30, 2013.

We’ve long been a party that is obsessed by leadership, so perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. By refusing to even limit the leader’s ability to appoint candidates and to set and veto policy, this weekend we rejected several opportunities to not only make the role of the individual Liberal member more powerful, but to see every member to take greater responsibility for the party’s success or failure. We’ve long been a party beset by leaderitis, always in search of a Messiah. We crown a leader and invest our hopes and dreams in them, feting them for our collective success and, conversely, blaming them for our collective failure. It’s why we’re so quick to dump leaders after a setback; it allows us to avoid taking collective responsibility.

By opening the leadership selection to a new non-member category – supporters – members lessened their collective ability to hold the leader accountable (leaders will no longer owe their mandate to the party membership, the folks that knock on the doors) and, offered an opportunity to balance that by devolving some of the leader’s powers to the membership, said no. Liberals will again invest their hopes in the leader.

Betting on a vibrant, open, fair leadership race

While the ability of the incoming executive to implement a bold agenda of party restructuring and reform shouldn’t be discounted, it’s clear delegates chose to put a lot of faith in the next leadership race to bring the Liberal Party back from the brink. We want to welcome thousands of Canadians into the fold as supporters, and the shiny lure we’re dangling is a say in picking our next leader. Which means we need an exciting, dynamic and open race. A coronation isn’t going to attract any supporters.

If we’re going to attract a diverse field of highly qualified candidates, they’ll need to feel it’s a fair and open contest. But the large elephant in the room is interim leader Bob Rae’s unwillingness to give a clear and unequivocal answer on his intentions regarding the permanent leadership.

When Rae agreed to take the interim leadership he promised not just the party executive, but members, that he would not seek the permanent job. Why is that important? Because the interim job gives its holder enormous advantages over potential opponents, as I’ve outlined in the past. Now, Bob is free to change his mind and seek the permanent job. No rules have to be changed – that’s a smokescreen thrown up to deflect the issue. He just needs to resign the interim position and he’s free to run for the permanent gig.  All that holds him back is his word; he’d need to explain to Liberals and to Canadians why he’s breaking his promise. And we're free to accept his arguments and vote for him, or reject his arguments and vote for someone else.

Despite his promise upon taking the job, he continues to play coy on his long-term intentions. His answers in Friday’s convention press conference illustrate it plainly: he is asked point-blank multiple times if he will rule out seeking the permanent leadership. And each time, he refuses to do so.

Rae is too smart not to know refusing to give a definitive answer will only ensure the distracting speculation will continue, and discourage other potential leadership candidates. If he has no intention of running, there’s no reason for him to not say, clearly and simply “I am not going to run. I will not be a candidate” That would end it. But by playing coy, and by deferring to rules that don’t really exist, the most charitable explanation is that he is at least keeping open the possibility of running.

You won’t find one Liberal, myself included, to say Bob Rae hasn’t done an amazing job as our interim leader. But between his unwillingness to be clear on his future intentions, the unwillingness of him and his office to ever include the word *interim* in speeches and communications, and a televised speech to caucus inexplicably defending his personal record as the NDP premier of Ontario, the mounting speculation that he will seek the permanent leadership has become too much of an issue to ignore.

The time has come

The selection of the next permanent Liberal leader is over a year away, but the race will be ramping-up sooner than that. Potential candidates will be gauging support, and once the new supporter system is in place, potential candidates will move to sign up supporters and members. And with no expiry on a supporter’s “membership” they’d be foolish not to begin immediately. But they won't, if they feel the fix is in.

We need a wide, qualified field to contest the race. And for that to happen, Bob Rae needs to stop playing word games. He needs to level with Liberals, and with Canadians. He must either clearly and plainly rule-out running, or announce he is considering it and sit down with the national executive to negotiate the timeline for a final decision and potential resignation as interim leader, so as to facilitate an open and competitive race.

It would be patently unfair and unacceptable to run for the permanent job from the interim office, and equally unacceptable to play coy until the last possible minute, squeezing every drop of advantage from the interim office and its party and taxpayer-funded budget before pulling the trigger on a leadership campaign.

We're the party of the Clarity Act, and we need a little clarity right now ourselves. We can’t move forward without it.

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Jordan said...

I've been beginning to think more and more that the Liberals are going to be stuck with Bob Rae as leader. I don't know if any of the people who have so far indicated they're thinking about running could beat Rae. All that can change during the course of a race but at this moment I think Dalton McGuinty and Justin Trudeau are the only real threats to Rae's leadership and both say they won't run. Trudeau's lack of experience would likely be revealed in a leadership campaign as well.

Vancouverois said...

As I've been saying elsewhere, Bob Rae's refusal to give a straight answer reminds me of Ignatieff's catastrophic "Red door or blue door" non-answer to the coalition question. It makes him look slimy and unprincipled.

Jordan said...

The Liberals would be much better off if Rae stayed in the house as leader for the next year and did not run for the leadership. It may also be great if the next leader was not elected at the moment, if the next leader could tour the country while Rae fights the Conservatives in the House it may really help the Liberals rebuilding process.

rockfish said...

Nope. When the race is officially declared, a date set with rules and regulations -- essentially a known time frame for all challengers -- then the Liberal Party is best served with Bob Rae as its *interim* leader. I don't care if you see adverse advantage written in the sky with biplanes, that supposed 'edge' will disappear once the campaign really begins. Being that he is an elder statesman who is always one that media has come to rely upon for quotes, insight and a riveting clip, he would still be that person whether you got your way, had him sidelined away from the action when NO race was even on?! That's astounding. I dare say, there may be plenty of members who will forget that he brings plenty of baggage (which I'm glad he stood up and defended so gallantly; it was an example that our last two leaders failed to grasp) and is past the age of legal retirement... It will be up to him, once the race is declared, to make his case if he so wants. It will also be up to others to do the same. So is it because Bob's doing such a great job that Dominic is virtually invisible these days?

rockfish said...
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