Get ready for a wild ride on Saturday

This leadership race is the most exciting political event in a generation

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Two important leadership races, the federal Liberals and the Alberta Conservatives, will be decided on the same day by very different formats.

The Liberal leadership race, at a delegated convention, is the most exciting political event in Canada in a generation. The Alberta Tory race - a one-member, one-vote system - is exciting only because it's too close to call between moderate front-runner Jim Dinning and Ted Morton, the hard-right runner-up on the first ballot last weekend. The actual event this Saturday will be as boring as the rain.

The Liberal race will bring 5,000 Grits together in the same room for four days of soaring rhetoric, deal-making and betrayals in the most competitive leadership race since the Conservative convention of 1983 and, in this party, since the Trudeau convention of 1968. The Alberta race will bring supporters of the candidates together in a room for a simple announcement of the result. In television terms, it's nothing more than a soundbite.

Yet the Liberals are the verge of adopting the one-member, one-vote system for the election of their next leader. No convention, no hoopla, just the envelope, please. It's a really dumb idea, first adopted by the Parti Quebecois in the 1985 succession to the founding father, Rene Levesque. The Canadian Alliance and, later, the regrouped Conservatives adopted the same boring system in 2002 and 2004. Sometimes democracy can be too much of a good thing.

A delegated convention, on the other hand, brings a party together, and rewards the party rank and file for all their volunteer efforts, giving them standing in the party.

And when a convention is truly competitive, as this one is, the outcome is entirely unpredictable.

The spreads among the front-runners on the first ballot will largely determine the shakeout on subsequent ballots.

In 1983, for example, Joe Clark led the Conservative convention with 36 per cent on the first ballot, to 29 per cent for Brian Mulroney, to 21 per cent for John Crosbie. Mulroney was close enough to Clark, and far enough ahead of Crosbie, to become the ABC choice - anyone but Clark, of the convention on the fourth ballot.

At the 1968 Liberal leadership, there were eight names on the first ballot, just as there are this one, and a clear front-runner, Pierre Trudeau, with 28 per cent. He enjoyed a comfortable spread over runners-up Paul Hellyer at 14 per cent and Bob Winters at 13 per cent. Still, it took four ballots when John Turner remained in until the end. And if Hellyer, stalled on the second ballot, had moved to Winters earlier than the fourth ballot, the outcome could have been different.

There is nothing comfortable about the first ballot spreads for any of the top four candidates, and understandable anxiety about their prospects for growth on subsequent ballots.

Michael Ignatieff has 30 per cent of the elected delegates and his camp hopes to have enough automatic delegates to bring him to 35 per cent. But even that wouldn't be enough to make him the inevitable choice of the convention. Bob Rae, at 20 per cent, would like enough ex-officio delegates to bring him into the mid-20s, to put him well ahead of Gerard Kennedy and Stephane Dion at 17 and 16 per cent. Kennedy might have consolidated his position as the third man by his opposition to the Quebecois nation resolution on Monday. The Trudeauites now have a horse in this race - Kennedy. Dion, fourth in the official delegate tally, is hoping to attract enough automatic delegates to move past Kennedy into third place.

Simply put, Dion can't win from fourth. But if Dion can get to third, he has lots of room to grow. A Strategic Counsel poll yesterday had Dion the second choice of 23 per cent of the delegates compared with 13 per cent for Kennedy, 10 per cent for Rae, and only six per cent for Ignatieff. Only Martha Hall Findlay is certain to be eliminated after the first ballot. And Ken Dryden, being a goalie and, thus, someone who marches to his own tune, is the most likely to stay in for a second ballot. But even Scott Brison and Joe Volpe could stay until eliminated, which would make for as many as six ballots.

More likely, there will be four ballots, and the question is, who will be the last two names on it. If it's Ignatieff and Rae, then Rae is the more likely winner. If it's either Rae or Ignatieff against Dion, then there is a way for Dion to win. Kennedy's Ontario delegates will never go to Rae. They remember Rae Days even if other Liberals don't.

Rae needs a showdown with Ignatieff. Dion just needs his name on the final ballot. Welcome to Montreal. Welcome to a great show.

 
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