Liberals propose plan to speed up Dion departure
OTTAWA — Michael Ignatieff appears poised to become federal Liberal leader on Wednesday with the support of a majority of Grit MPs and senators.
But his chief rival, Bob Rae, is not going down without a fight. He's challenging the legitimacy of a leadership process that excludes tens of thousands of rank and file Liberals.
The prospect of a caucus vote installing Ignatieff in the top Liberal job emerged late Sunday after the party's national executive gave a rough reception to a last-minute proposal to give all party members a vote by a combination of phone and online ballots early next month.
No final decision was taken but insiders said it appeared the proposal, supported by Rae, will not fly.
In an email Sunday night to party members across the country Rae urged them to make their voices heard in the selection of a new leader.
"You are the volunteers who make this party a living force in the life of our country," Rae writes, "Without you, there is no Liberal party."
Noting that only two Liberal MP's were elected between North Bay, Ontario and Vancouver, Rae argues a simple vote of the Commons caucus would exclude Liberals in huge chunks of the country from participating in the selection of the party's next leader.
"Let's urge everyone in a position to influence this to put a stop to this hasty, ill-considered idea before it goes any further," he wrote.
Liberals are virtually unanimous that the leadership question must be settled quickly - well before a Jan. 27 budget vote that could plunge the country into an election or see the Harper Conservatives replaced by a coalition government.
If there is to be no nationwide vote by party members, a caucus vote is the only other option left to find a replacement for Stephane Dion. Dion is expected to resign at a Wednesday caucus meeting, although some Liberals expect he may go as early as Monday.
Under the party constitution, as soon as the leader resigns, the national executive, in consultation with the caucus, can choose an interim leader.
Many Liberals now expect Ignatieff will be chosen Wednesday by caucus as interim leader - to be made permanent by a ratification vote at a previously scheduled May 2 leadership vote.
Ignatieff already enjoys the lion's share of support in caucus. He's expected to get a boost Monday, picking up the support of the third leadership contender, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.
LeBlanc is expected to withdraw and endorse Ignatieff, although top insiders in his camp continued to insist late Sunday that no final decision has been taken.
Throughout the day Sunday, the Ignatieff and Rae camps argued over how Dion's successor should be chosen.
Steven MacKinnon, Ignatieff's national campaign director, said the party constitution provides only one method for choosing an interim leader - a decision by the national executive, in consultation with the Liberal parliamentary caucus.
"The party's process for selecting a leader is prescribed by the constitution and, while we are interested in any suggestions the party may have for how to shorten that process, it is clear the constitution must be respected," MacKinnon said in an interview.
Sources said Ignatieff was personally calling MPs to urge that caucus settle the matter at a meeting Wednesday.
A caucus vote would give Ignatieff a decided edge. Indeed, rival camps said some Ignatieff supporters were arguing that the matter should be settled strictly by the 77 elected Liberal MPs, which would likely guarantee an Ignatieff victory.
Ignatieff is believed to have the support of at least 50 MPs - although the Rae camp insists the number is closer to 30 - and about 10 of 58 Liberal senators. Rae is believed to have stronger support among senators.
Caucus support has been shifting somewhat since last week, as Liberals fracture over whether to pursue the idea of forming a coalition with the NDP, propped up by the Bloc Quebecois. Rae has emerged as the champion of the coalition idea while Ignatieff has been decidedly cool to the notion.
On Sunday, Ignatieff insiders accused Rae of advocating an unconstitutional process in a desperate bid to find some way of overtaking the frontrunner.
"Bob Rae is trying to find any formula that avoids us winning, even if it's unconstitutional," said one member of the Ignatieff camp.
In an interview Sunday afternoon, Rae said a consensus has emerged that the party must quickly find a permanent replacement for Dion before Parliament returns and is presented with a budget on Jan. 27. He said the party has an "obligation to provide the greatest stability going forward" into the new year.
But he said allowing caucus alone to decide the leadership would be elitist, undemocratic and illegitimate.
"One suggestion that I've heard - that the caucus or even just MPs, for which there's no constitutional basis, but just MPs would decide - is to me unacceptable and just plain wrong," Rae said.
"People have to understand there has to be a process and it has to be seen to be a democratic and legitimate one."
Rae said a vote by caucus alone would disenfranchise Liberals in the 231 ridings not represented by a Liberal MP.
"The people have to be heard," he said. "At a time of party renewal, it's inconceivable to me that people would be even contemplating the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Liberals."
Rae said the party has developed an "innovative solution" that is "both technically and technologically" possible to implement. He said it should be adopted.
"It is possible to have a much, much broader consultation with the membership than simply having people decide behind closed doors."
One Rae strategist pointed out that a caucus vote would effectively shut out Liberals across the West. The party has only two MPs from the prairie provinces - Regina's Ralph Goodale and Winnipeg's Anita Neville - and only five from Vancouver.
A top insider with LeBlanc's leadership campaign said the New Brunswick MP agrees that "there is an urgent need to expedite" the leadership contest and have a permanent new leader in place "to steer us through the turbulent waters of January."
"A democratic consultation within the party must be conducted but surely that can be done soon," the LeBlanc insider said.
Sources say the proposal to accelerate the leadership vote is based on the party's constitutional provisions for reviewing a leader's performance.
Every member would get a vote in their ridings, with all 308 ridings given equal weight.
Earlier Sunday, Ignatieff publicly agreed that the party needs to quickly find a permanent replacement for Dion.
"I think that Mr. Dion has to consider his options," he told CTV's Question Period.
"There's an emerging feeling in the caucus that, given the importance of this (budget) vote in late January, it would be appropriate to have a permanent leader in place . . . . The caucus is considering various options about how to do that."
Former cabinet minister John Manley suggested, in an opinion piece published Saturday, that the party executive and parliamentary caucus should choose at least an interim leader as soon as possible.
Although Dion negotiated the power-sharing deal with the NDP and the Bloc that brought the Harper government to the brink of a non-confidence vote, the prime minister dodged the bullet by persuading the Governor General last week to let him suspend Parliament for seven weeks.
He has also mounted a massive public relations campaign, including anti-Dion television and radio ads, contending that a leader whose party captured just 25 per cent of the vote in the Oct. 14 election doesn't have a legitimate mandate to govern.
Many Liberals acknowledge privately that Dion's continued presence as the public face of the party has complicated efforts to sell the idea of an alternative coalition government.
They point, as an example, to the embarrassing communications snafu last week in which Dion's team was an hour late delivering a videotape to broadcast outlets offering the Liberal response to a televised address by Harper.
Manley gave voice to what some other Liberals had been thinking when he wrote "the notion that the public would accept Stephane Dion as prime minister, after having resoundingly rejected that possibility a few weeks earlier, was delusional at best."
He also declared that what's needed is a leader "whose first job is to rebuild the Liberal party rather than leading a coalition with the NDP."
Dion continued to promote the coalition at a rally Saturday in Toronto where he shared the stage with NDP Leader Jack Layton, while Rae attended a similar rally in Winnipeg.
Ignatieff has been more ambivalent, describing his position Sunday as "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition."
He said the power-sharing deal is serving a useful purpose by keeping the pressure on Harper in advance of the budget promised for January.
But he also said the Liberals have to be prepared to look at the budget before making any final decisions.
There was no comment from Layton and the NDP on the latest turn of events among their erstwhile partners in Liberal ranks.