Nothing Too “Liberal” About the IggyBob Race

$90,000 to run. $1,500,000 maximum spending. 10% of all donations to your campaign “tithed” to the party. These are the rules for the upcoming Liberal Leadership race.

If you’re Michael Ignatieff, or Bob Rae, these are not huge hurdles. You have your organization largely in place from 2006; you’re a proven fund-raiser; you’ve got name recognition going into the game. For other potential candidates — and I include Dominic LeBlanc, a declared candidate in this group — these are huge hurdles to overcome.

Name recognition, and convincing delegates at riding association after riding association to vote for you, requires travel, which does not come cheaply. In many cases riding associations are partly if not completely moribund — there are great stretches of Canada where Liberal party members are thin on the ground — and the candidate’s campaign has to create the infrastructure as a part of trying to win votes. Along the way time must go into the “passing of the hat”: money must be brought in, starting with the $90,000 just to play in the game. It’s a tremendous challenge to do the rest on so little, having to put so much in the pot simply as your ante.

Candidates, of course, choose to enter leadership campaigns not merely to win them: in many cases, they are playing for future leadership races, and trying to win a decent critic’s role and possible Cabinet post from their candidacy. With a more sensible entry fee, perhaps there’d be more of them. Otherwise, it’s a duel of the two front-runners from last time.

It’s hard to fault the party apparatus: they’re in debt, not all the leadership campaign debt from the last go-’round has been discharged, and another campaign with seven or eight candidates running up millions means years before “normal” party funds flow again. This is something the Liberal Party can’t afford. Indeed, they need to siphon, via the 10% tithe on income streams, monies to pay down their existing obligations even while funds flow to the candidates in this new race. Nevertheless, the decision boils the campaign down to what will effectively be an IggyBob race.

That would not be healthy. Both Ignatieff and Rae are polarizing candidates: for every supporter they attract, they repel at least one. If you’ve enjoyed American politics for the last two decades, with its 50.1%:49.9% splits and deep senses of disenfranchisement and desire to overturn the winner simply for existing, an IggyBob race would be a very good way to turn a campaign in a division in the party deeper and more vicious than any of the Trudeau-Turner, Turner-Chrétien or Chrétien-Martin struggles. The candidates may well be able to work together. Their supporters: not so likely. (Witness the never-ending swirls of rumour that Ignatieff supporters worked against Dion from December 2, 2006 onward: whether they did or not didn’t matter, they were presumed to.)

The nasty part, of course, for Liberals at this juncture is that neither Ignatieff nor Rae would make a good leader for Canada. Not only do both of them carry strings of baggage behind them, they’re also far better suited to being Cabinet Ministers (should a Liberal Government emerge at some point during their active political lives) than to be Prime Minister. One is an opportunist jumping on the promise of power; the other the same. Prime Ministers, on the other hand, must have a strong sense of purpose tied to a very flexible and quickly responsive mind to deal with “events, my dear boy, events”, as British Prime Minister Macmillan described the most vexatious part of his premiership. Purpose (beyond power) escapes those seduced by the promise of power.

So the paradox is clear: the Liberals need a wide field of viable candidates, both to avoid yet another split in an IggyBob run-off, and to find someone capable of wielding the role of definer of the party, fund-raiser extraordinare, builder of the riding associations, campaigner par excellence and defining Prime Minister for a government (should it happen) that would most likely be a minority and occurring as Canadian economic, energy and infrastructure interests have come under increasing strain. The 2010s will not be good years in the Western world, including Canada.

So, you may ask, what about Gerard Kennedy? To that (and I know many of the Liberal bloggers whom I enjoy reading are strongly suggesting he ought to be a candidate and become the leader) I say “let’s see him prove himself”. It’ll be harder for him to do that with the limits that are in effect, limits that aid and abet an IggyBob finish. But time will tell. After all, May in Vancouver is a long way away.

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