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Liberal party brass have scheme to postpone choosing leader for year or more

OTTAWA - Liberal party brass have cooked up a scheme to put off choosing a permanent successor to Michael Ignatieff for at least a year. And they're laying down conditions for choosing an interim leader that seem designed to ensure the post does not go to Toronto MP Bob Rae.

The machinations are contained in draft statement from the Liberal national board, obtained by The Canadian Press. They have sparked an angry backlash from Liberal senators, who would be excluded from any voice in choosing the interim leader. The statement says Ignatieff, who lost his own seat and led the party to a historic defeat in last week's election, has delivered a formal letter of resignation to party president Alf Apps.

Under the party's constitution, that means a permanent successor must be elected by Oct. 19 and an acting leader chosen in the interim. The constitution requires only that the interim leader be recommended by the Liberal caucus — which includes 46 senators as well as the 34 MPs left standing after last week's election blowout — and approved by the national board.

It is silent on whether the interim leader may seek the post of permanent leader — a loophole Ignatieff exploited in 2008 to squeeze out his leadership rivals, including Rae.

The draft statement — circulated Monday morning and approved largely unchanged by the 36-member national board late Monday night, according to sources — outlines a proposal to get around the constitution.

It suggests that the national board convene an extraordinary "special convention" on June 12, conducted via the Internet, to amend the constitution. At that virtual convention, delegates would be asked to approve an amendment that would defer a leadership vote to sometime between May 1, 2012, and June 15, 2013, with the exact date to be fixed at the discretion of the national board.

Delegates would also be asked to postpone the party's biennial convention, currently slated for December this year, to Jan. 13-15, 2012. As for choosing an interim leader, the draft statement serves notice that the national board will approve only someone who:

— is supported by the majority of elected MPs. That would exclude any role for senators.

— makes a "solemn undertaking," in writing, that he or she will not seek the permanent leadership of the party.

— agrees, in writing, not to engage in "any discussions or negotiations that would require any fundamental or material change to the nature or structure of the party," without prior approval of delegates to a party convention. That would preclude any discussions about merging the Liberals with the NDP.

— appoints a "native francophone" MP as interim deputy leader if the interim leader is not bilingual.

The conditions seem to be specifically aimed at stopping Rae, a fluently bilingual former NDP premier of Ontario. Rae has acknowledged he's considering running again for the permanent leadership of the party. Immediately following last week's election, he said the party must at least discuss the idea of uniting with the NDP, although he's subsequently said he's not promoting a merger and it should not be the party's priority.

Rae also has considerable support among the party's senators, most of whom were appointed by former prime minister Jean Chretien, who has mused himself about a merger in the past. Sources have said Chretien called dozens of caucus members last week, urging them to support Rae as interim leader.

Some MPs said privately last week that Chretien's intervention had raised fears that a move was afoot to speed up merger negotiations and give Rae an unfair advantage in the contest to choose a permanent successor to Ignatieff. Rae last week said Chretien was acting on his own behalf. Rae said Monday he's disappointed that machinations are taking place without any input from party rank and file.

"I'm disappointed to learn that rules are being put in place without any discussion with the caucus or the party," he said in an email. "It's always better to follow the constitution and give all the members of the party a chance to choose a leader when there's a vacancy. I expect people will wonder why this is being made quite so complicated."

Senator Terry Mercer said the proposal to exclude senators in picking an interim leader is contrary to the party's constitution, which specifies that both elected MPs and senators are members of the parliamentary caucus.

"It makes no sense to me and, frankly, I object strenuously to Alfred Apps trying to set the agenda," said Mercer, a former national director of the party. "Mr. Apps is not team building. He's dividing this team . . . If what's wrong with the party has got a name, it's probably Alfred Apps."

Mercer said senators have always been "an integral part" of the caucus and will be even more so over the next four years as the party struggles to rebuild. He said he hasn't yet decided who to support for interim leader but the party is in such dire straits that the job must go to the "best" person, irrespective of permanent leadership ambitions. In his mind, that means someone who is fluently bilingual, a solid performer and a unifier.

"If we can't have the best person today then let's have a leadership contest right away," he said.

However, Apps said the statement obtained by The Canadian Press is "an old draft" and some elements of the proposal were changed prior to Monday night's conference call with national board members. He would not say what had been changed.

"Everyone should just take a Valium until our national board vote," he said, adding that a final statement will be delivered to all caucus members on Tuesday, one day before caucus is to meet to choose an interim leader. Apps noted that board members are democratically elected and said they're just "doing our best to get it right."

But another former Liberal national director, Sheila Gervais, said a groundswell is developing among rank and file members to insist that the party stick to the constitution and prevent the elites from once again manipulating the leadership process.

"Rather than some great big, open-air tent, the party is a bolted-door clubhouse where you have to know both the secret password and the secret handshake to receive entry," Gervais, a former leadership organizer for Rae, wrote on her blog Monday.

"The only consultation that occurs in the club is 'talk amongst yourselves.'"

Privately, some Liberals believe the latest manoeuvres are instigated by Rae's potential leadership rival, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc. LeBlanc has considerable support among members of the party's national board. The conditions spelled out in the draft statement would seem to favour someone like veteran Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale, whom sources say has also been canvassing for support to become interim leader. He does not speak French.

In an email to national board members, Apps says the draft statement reflects preliminary discussions among board members. As well, he says it has been "well received by the leader and the caucus leadership and, we believe is broadly reflective of the overwhelming sentiment we are all receiving from the party membership."

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