First of all, let me say that I have no particular problem should the Liberal caucus decide, in their infinite wisdom, to appoint a new “permanent” leader of the party. But seeing as Bob Rae has shown no indication of gracefully withdrawing from the race (in which case, the matter would be a moot point), it’s reasonable to suggest that all members should have a say in the outcome.
Simply working out matters in caucus (“behind closed doors” as it’s usually described) would have the unfortunate consequence of leaving many members of the Liberal grassroots organization feeling disenfranchised from the process. This is especially so, given that the membership in certain regions of the country is currently unrepresented (or at least under-represented) by elected members of parliament. Creating angry or bitter feelings of resentment amongst the grassroots is probably the last thing in the world the Liberals need right now, which makes a compelling argument for putting the matter to a vote of some kind or other.
The question then remains is a twofold one: the best manner in which to achieve this; and, the optimal timing involved. Actually, it’s a threefold one, if we consider whether there should be an interim leader, or go straight to the election of a permanent leader.
So, let’s address that last aspect first. While appointing an interim or “caretaker” leader may well be the technically correct thing to do and even the appropriate measure under normal circumstances, these are not such times. Make no mistake that the Liberal Party is on the brink of crisis — it’s bankrupt, dispirited, in a state of chaos by all accounts. Moreover, public support is at the lowest level in living memory — from an electoral standpoint, it’s a disaster looking for a place to happen. Strong leadership and a commitment to begin making the needed reforms to rehabilitate the party are needed now, not five or six months from now (just before summer… so that will probably translate into not much happening for 8-10 months or even a year).
Working on the assumption that, in fairness, the interim leader couldn’t be one of the men in the race, it’s also perhaps worth pointing out that such an appointment would bring the total number of leaders of the LPC, between Chrétien and the next one, to five in as many years! Another drawback to the appointment of an interim leader would be that it effectively takes the possibility of an election off the table. Now, I don’t think that provoking an election or heading into the polls would be a judicious decision for the Liberals at the moment, but it’s important that the threat of one at least be conceivable and credible if this minority parliament is to function the way it’s supposed to (rather than as the Conservative majority that Mr. Harper seems to envision it being).
Continuing to work backwards, the next part of the question is timing. In light of the urgent circumstances and the need to restore some sense of order and continuity to the leadership of the party, the more immediate the timing the better it seems to me. Waiting until the convention in May to resolve the matter just doesn’t seem like a realistic option — “untenable” as Dominic LeBlanc put it. In part, the timing relates to both the first and last part of the question — whether there should be an interim leader and the method of voting chosen. If Liberals are willing to break the rules (which they’re perfectly entitled to do) and move to a different voting arrangement, then the matter of timing becomes more flexible.
Which brings us to how best to express the “democratic” will of the membership. My preference is for OMOV via an online vote, as this would give the most immediate expression of intention to the largest number of people in the most direct way possible. The feasibility of this shouldn’t be all that difficult to work out, although there are some legitimate concerns with this method of voting based on the past experience of other parties. I’m certain that the necessary precautions could be taken to ensure that it’s secure, tamper-proof (gotta watch out for those wily Conservative miscreants, you know). However, if the technological hurdles can’t be overcome in time, there are other low-tech means of achieving something similar that may involve votes being taken at individual riding associations across the country, or something of that nature.
As I’ve said before, the important thing is to get this thing wrapped up and settled before parliament resumes at the end January. Then Harper will have to face an Official Opposition with a legitimate leader that has the full backing and support of his party. The importance of this over this next critical period of time cannot be underestimated.