Avoiding pitfalls, the Liberals give themselves a chance

The clearest danger for the Liberals was that they might have rejected reform
Canada’s interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during a plenary session during the Liberal Biennial Convention in Ottawa January 14, 2012. Photo by Blair Gable for Maclean’s Magazine
Photograph by Blair Gable

There was nothing the Liberals could have done at their convention, which just wrapped up in Ottawa, that would have justified anyone declaring with a straight face that this party, so badly mangled in last spring’s election, is back in fine form.

A mere policy convention—considering that the Liberals won’t pick their new leader until next year, and that the next federal election is three or four years off—just couldn’t accomplish anything so decisive.

On the other hand, the 3,000-plus Liberals who showed up here for the three-day confab might easily have taken missteps with the potential to seriously compound their deep-seated problems. And the fact that they didn’t sabotage their own chances of renewal counts as a success of sorts.

The clearest danger for the Liberals was that they might have rejected the proposal to open up their party, a reform push championed by Alf Apps, their outgoing president.

It’s not that Apps’s plan to offer a full say in the selection of the next Liberal leader to mere “supporters” of the party, on the same footing as full-fledged members, is in itself so vitally important. Yet the rejection of this high-profile recommendation at the convention would have been interpreted, with justification, as evidence that even last spring’s election disaster hadn’t left the Liberal rank-and-file willing change their ingrained ways.

If voting to empower a new class of not-quite-members in the coming leadership race signalled a willingness to take risks in the name of reform, the rejection of the bid by Sheila Copps for the party presidency underlined the sense that Liberals were turning a page.

Whatever else she might have brought to the job, Copps was bound to be seen, given her long track record as a Chrétien-era cabinet minister, as embodying the party’s past. The man who beat her, Mike Crawley, has been an Ontario and federal Liberal backroom figure since the mid-1980s—yet his much lower profile through all those years allowed him to present himself to many delegates as new blood.

Had it been Copps, instead of Crawley, who appeared beside Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, at the convention’s closing news conference, the duo’s image would have carried an awkward 1990s-retro feel.

Going into the convention, Rae seemed positioned to be the weekend’s dominant figure. He uncorked a rousing speech to the Liberal caucus last Wednesday, sparking speculation he was setting himself up for a leadership bid—even though he agreed last spring, as a condition of taking on the interim job, not to seek the permanent post.

Rae’s revised position is that he doesn’t rule out running if the new party executive, elected at the convention, says that’s okay with them. The surprise of the convention, though, was that gossip about Rae’s leadership aspirations was quickly drowned out by buzz about the ambitions of not one, but two McGuintys.

Ottawa MP David McGuinty was prowling the convention corridors shaking hands and admitting freely that he’s pondering a leadership bid. His brother, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, gave a better than solid speech on Friday evening, stirring just about Liberal (and journalist) in the room to ask aloud if he’s contemplating a jump from Queen’s Park to Parliament Hill.

An outsider might imagine that the two brothers must have worked out which of them should be laying the groundwork for a leadership campaign. In fact, one veteran Liberal who knows the family well told me he doubts the McGuinty boys have sorted that out this far in advance.

Leadership speculation might not be the lifeblood of a political party, but it’s the caffeine in the bloodstream. Without at least a bit of it, partisan functions feel sleepy. So it’s just as well that the Liberals had some early, intriguing jockeying for their top job to chatter about at their convention.

But the party has put off picking its next leader until sometime in the spring of 2013. That means neither Rae nor a McGuinty (or two) needs to decide for sure until perhaps next summer. By then, Crawley and his new executive will have had half a year to work or so behind the scenes on improving fundraising and on-the-ground organization—the sort of unglamorous and hard-to-track work that will determine if the next leader, whoever that might be, has a decent chance.