With Bob and Iggy in the race, the Liberal amateur hour is over

Both Rae and Ignatieff have won their Liberal spurs since the last race

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The Gazette, Sunday, November 16, 2008

And then there were three - Iggy, Bob and Dominic. That's it. That's the field. Nobody else is coming into the Liberal leadership race, which means they are looking at a two-ballot convention, at most, in Vancouver next May.

More likely, it will be a one-ballot convention, rather like the one that chose Jean Chrétien in Calgary in 1990. It will be more competitive than the coronation of Paul Martin in Toronto in 2003. But there will be much less suspense than the convention that chose the accidental leader, Stéphane Dion, in Montreal in 2006. But then, the Liberals can do without that kind of suspense.

Dion won the leadership then because he wasn't Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae. It was a revolt of the grass roots against the party establishment. The establishment had two candidates, neither of whom would go to the other. The oldest and best of friends, they were estranged by ambition.

Ignatieff's problem then was that he was a foreigner, having lived outside the country for 30 years. Rae was a stranger, an interloper, who had been in another party, the NDP, for 30 years.

The ballot question around Iggy's candidacy, as he neatly put it the other day, was "who do you think you are?" They knew who Bob was - he'd been fighting Grits his entire life.

Since then, both have paid their dues and earned their keep in two summers on the barbecue circuit, on every campus that would have them, and in countless meetings of riding associations.

Both have shown well on the Liberal front bench. Part of Ignatieff's problem in the last Parliament was that he constantly outperformed the leader. Rae was a first-line player from the moment of his arrival last spring. The Liberals know that either one of them will make them much more competitive against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives than they were under Dion. Rae is a seasoned pro, and Ignatieff has become one, showing he's tough enough, as well as smart enough, for the top job.

Their two leadership camps never dispersed, and both have a huge advantage in money and organization over anyone else, which is why nearly everyone else is staying home.

The list of could-have-been candidates who aren't running is nearly three times as long as the list of those who are. There are Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay from the last race; the party hasn't forgiven them for their roles as Dion's kingmakers.

From Quebec, there are Denis Coderre and Martin Cauchon, who would have been running to be Quebec lieutenant this time.

There are the McGuinty boys, Dalton and David, one of whom has a day job running Ontario.

There are John Manley and Frank McKenna, both of whom have golden handcuffs on in the corporate world. Manley spent $2 million to run against Martin in 2003, and he wasn't going to do that again. McKenna has serious money tied up in his role as vice-chairman of the TD Bank. His French is weak, and in Quebec they haven't forgotten his role in opposing Meech Lake as premier of New Brunswick. A decade out of the game, he was rusty, and he knew it.

This leadership race has taken shape remarkably fast. Within a week of the federal election, the sitting leader was forced out. Within a month, the entire leadership field has shaken out. Within six months, the party will have a new leader, installed opposite Harper before the end of the spring session, ready to pull the pin on this minority government as early as next fall.

There is no doubt, absolutely none, that this race is Iggy's to lose, even more than the last one was. There are two differences in his campaign this time. First, he's a better candidate - you won't catch him in any more unforced errors of thinking out loud. And second, he has worked hard to broaden his base. He's very deep in both Quebec and Ontario, where this race will be won.

Rae has an edge in money and organization. His brother John, who organized winning leadership and election campaigns for Jean Chrétien, is the best organizer in the party.

But Rae has a problem - he was premier of Ontario during the downturn of the 1990s. It's hard to get away from that, especially now, as the economy is heading into a new recession.

As for Dominic Leblanc, he is proposing generational change, but at 40 he is running for what John Turner once called "some next time." But in a two-ballot convention, he could be the kingmaker for one side, and the spoiler for the other.

The Liberals want to get on with this. A small field suits their purpose. It will keep costs down at a time when the party is broke. Thanks to Dion's abysmal 26-per-cent popular vote, down from 30 per cent in 2006, the Liberals will receive $1.6 million a year less from Elections Canada.

They need a leader who will unite the party, fill its campaign coffers, and win the next election. Both Iggy and Bob understand that is the leader's job. Either way, the Liberal Party will be back in the hands of professionals. Amateur hour is over.

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