Tuesday, May 3, 2011

When the head aches, all the members partake of the pain

Why Michael Ignatieff will have to give up the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Last night Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff seemed to know what needs to be done in the Party's best interests when he said: "I will play any part that the party wishes me to play as we go forward to rebuild, to renew, to reform the vital centre of Canadian politics. I will serve as long as the party wants to make me serve or asks me to serve and not a day longer."

While some Liberals debate just how long and under what circumstances that continuing service might be, the Leader is really boxed by the realities of process.  No doubt, more important is the question of moral authority, but over the years the Party has gradually moved to put in place some checks on the misguided reading of that authority.

The plain facts of it are that Mr. Ignatieff failed to win a seat and it will be four years before another one may open up.  He cannot lead the Party for long even as a medium term measure without a seat in the House of Commons and there is not one out of the 34 we've got that could or should be risked in a resignation-based by-election.  That would be blatantly contrary to the democratic will just expressed, in both the positive and negative senses.  In other words, there would be no moral authority to support either action.  Everyone likely agrees this is just not on.

So why couldn't he just wait a while to resign, say a year or so? This is where the process kicks in.

When the election was called the Party rescheduled its Biennial Convention originally scheduled for June to mid-December, on virtually the last date that the Constitution allows for the holding of said Convention. It has to be held within two calendar years of the last convention which was held in May of 2009, so December 2011 it is. 

The Constitution also says that at the first Convention following an election at which the Leader fails to become Prime Minister, an automatic review vote or "endorsement ballot" will be conducted.  All well and good one might say, he can hang in until that Convention and face the music there, perhaps bringing a plan for rebuilding the party to the party for discussion and ratification.  

Problem with that (and there are many more) is that the review vote is actually conducted well before the Convention - by all members at the delegate selection meetings held between about one and two months before the Convention itself, in other words in September and October.  Mr. Ignatieff will not win that vote and the Party should not be wasting its energies fighting a review battle or even simply going through the motions of conducting a review process at any rate when it needs to get on with rebuilding. 

Nonetheless, if he chose to option his right to that vote, and he loses it, a vacancy is created immediately. On the spot. A Leadership will have to be held by mid-June 2012 and an interim Leader chosen.  The ironic result of that? An ipso facto year-long Leadership battle in two stages.

The Liberal Party knows full well how harmful and  divisive lengthy (or endless) Leadership battles are.  That's one of the reasons Leadership votes must now be conducted within 6 months of a resignation or intention to resign.

The experience of the recent Leadership race that selected Christy Clarke as Leader of the BC Liberal Party (they have the same one-member-one vote process that their Federal cousins now have too) should be a positive lesson for Liberals.  Swift and surgical, with minimum bleeding.  In fact an amazing ability to bring in new blood.

The Party may be surprised at just how many Canadians are actually prepared to help rebuild the Party having participated in giving us the breathing room to do so.

So, the only logical route for Mr. Ignatieff and the Party to take is for him to announce his intention to resign when the Party chooses his successor.  The Party should then set the date for the Convention it must have this year for late October/ early November, and conduct its Leadership balloting over the same weekend, and the Party can give its new Leader a proper mandate.

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