Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae announced last month that he would not join the race to lead the Liberals. The former Ontario premier’s unexpected decision leaves the field wide open.
There are currently three declared candidates: Deborah Coyne, Shane Geschiere and Jonathan Mousley. But all three lack the name recognition and political experience crucial for a successful leadership bid. A poll conducted shortly after Rae’s announcement suggests that Justin Trudeau, son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, would be the frontrunner if he entered the race, but nearly half of respondents remain undecided.
The field for Liberal leadership will likely firm up in the fall ahead of the leadership convention scheduled for next April. No matter who enters the race, the decision will be a crucial one for the Liberals; it will almost certainly define their place in Canadian politics ahead of the next election. Should they pick the right leader, the Liberals could replace the New Democrats as the official opposition and potentially challenge the Conservatives for government. Should they pick the wrong one, they could find themselves reduced to an even smaller rump and potentially forced to merge with the New Democrats.
Picking party leaders is more art than science, however, and the right kind of leader in one period can bewrongin another. The last two Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion, still the member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent–Cartierville, and Michael Ignatieff, now a senior fellow of Massey College, both had qualities that made them attractive leaders, but struggled to effectively sell their party’s message. Perhaps a humbler Liberal party will find it easier to look past the factionalism that has often ruled its leadership conventions and put candidates through their paces the way that the New Democrats did in their recent leadership race.
The opening of the leadership election by allowing “supporters” as well as members of the Liberal party to vote might reduce the influence of factionalism, but only if these supporters participate in large numbers. The Liberals should not set the entrance fee or spending limit too high, to ensure that a wide range of candidates can participate. In the recent New Democratic leadership election, which culminated in the selection of Thomas Mulcair as leader in late March, both the entrance fee and the spending limit were reasonable at $15,000 and $500,000, respectively.
Another crucial lesson the Liberals can learn from the New Democrats is the need to hold multiple leadership debates. The New Democrats held six debates on topics ranging from the economy to Canada’s place in the world. This gave voters ample opportunity to see candidates articulate their visions for their party, and gave them a chance to sort out which candidates would be able to perform best on the campaign trail and in Parliament. The multiple debates also gave relatively unknown candidates like northern British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen a chance to build a national profile among New Democrats.
Within the Liberal party, either in the current caucus or outside of it, is the leader that they need. Regardless, unless the party makes a concerted effort to make its leadership race a fair and vigorous one, it may not be able to find that leader. It’s time for the Liberals to set aside the factionalism that ruled past leadership conventions and adopt the kind of rules that make for a good race. If the Liberals are truly serious about unseating the New Democrats as the official opposition and eventually replacing the Conservatives in government, then they should work hard to ensure that they find the best possible leader.