A consensus appears to be developing that the decimated Liberal party should delay electing a new leader for 18 months.
Party president Alf Apps says the fall of 2012 is emerging as the favoured date for choosing a successor to Michael Ignatieff, who resigned after leading the once-mighty party to its worst ever electoral showing on May 2.
Mr. Apps made the comment late Wednesday after a conference call with Liberal riding presidents that lasted two hours and 15 minutes.
He said there also appears to be broad support among the presidents for a proposal to ensure that whoever is chosen to lead the party in the interim is bilingual, won't run for the permanent leadership and won't discuss the idea of a possible merger with the NDP.
However, one riding president said it was impossible tell from the conference call - in which fewer than two dozen of some 200 participating presidents got a chance to speak - if there was any consensus.
"It really was all for naught, in my opinion," Andrew Iler, president of the Niagara West-Glanbrook Liberal association, said after the conference call.
Mr. Iler said he was the only one of at least six other presidents who got to speak to their belief that attempts to delay the leadership vote violates the party's constitution, which requires that Mr. Ignatieff's successor to be chosen by late October. Mr. Iler tried to force a vote on a motion to that effect but was ruled out of order because he'd not given notice of his motion.
Mr. Iler said the unhappy presidents may try to force another conference call, giving proper notice for motions that could be voted upon, giving a better gauge of the real views of riding presidents. They could also pursue other options - including a possible court challenge - but Mr. Iler said they won't go to such lengths unless they're sure they have significant support within the party.
"If we realize we're a very, very small minority ... we're going to have to bow to the majority of the party."
Mr. Apps acknowledged that the conference call was an "imperfect tool" for gauging the views of riding presidents but he said he also received dozens of e-mails afterwards which were supportive of a delay until the fall of 2012.
"It's quite clear there's a consensus on 18 months," Mr. Apps said.
Had there been a vote Wednesday night, Ron Hartling, president of the Kingston and the Islands Liberal association, predicted a proposal to delay the leadership vote would have passed.
The call was intended to consult riding presidents on a proposal developed last week by the party's 36-member national board of directors to get around the party's constitution so that shell-shocked Liberals can tackle the job of rebuilding the party before selecting Mr. Ignatieff's permanent successor.
The board proposed that a special "virtual convention" be held on June 18, at which delegates would be asked to amend the constitution so that the leadership vote could be delayed to sometime between May 2012 and June 2013. According to Apps, most Liberals consulted thus far agree with the proposal in general but want to fix the date for the leadership vote more precisely to the fall of 2012.
The board also served notice last week that it will only approve an interim leader who is bilingual, promises not to seek the permanent leadership or engage in discussions about merging with the NDP and who is supported by a double majority of Liberal MPs and the caucus as a whole, including 45 Liberal senators.
Those conditions could rule out most of the party's remaining high-profile MPs, in particular Toronto MP Bob Rae. The former NDP premier of Ontario appears to be the favourite choice for interim leader among both MPs and senators. But Mr. Rae, who ran for the permanent leadership in 2006 and briefly in 2008 before stepping aside for Mr. Ignatieff, is widely thought to be planning a third shot at the top job.
The board's proposals sparked something of a backlash among Liberals who resented the fact that rank and file members weren't consulted and who feared the machinations are aimed more at blocking Mr. Rae than helping the party. Some, including a couple of MPs, called for Mr. Apps' resignation.
Since then, Mr. Apps has consulted with the party's various women's, youth, aboriginal and seniors' commissions, as well as the riding presidents. He'll consult further with defeated candidates on Thursday before the board releases its final proposal on Friday.
Mr. Apps said there was some discussion Wednesday among riding presidents about whether an interim leader should be precluded from running for the permanent job but most who spoke seemed supportive.
In an interview shortly before Wednesday's conference call, Mr. Apps acknowledged he's become "a lightning rod" for anger over the party's dismal showing on May 2, when it was reduced to a rump of 34 MPs and Mr. Ignatieff lost his own seat. But Mr. Apps said he has no intention of resigning until a new president and executive is chosen at the next biennial convention in January.
"If it's helpful for me to take the blame and commit not to run again, I'll do that," he said. "But I'm not going to leave the party in the lurch."