OTTAWA — Debate over the Liberal party’s future began raging even before Michael Ignatieff announced Tuesday that he will resign as leader.
Toronto MP Bob Rae, a likely contender to succeed Ignatieff, triggered much of the talk with a blunt assessment that the decimated party can’t avoid discussing the possibility of merging with the ascendant NDP.
Ignatieff weighed in against the idea but acknowledged he won’t be calling the shots after leading the Liberals to a bloodbath Monday, in which even he lost his seat.
“I will not be remaining as leader of this party,” Ignatieff told red-eyed supporters during an emotional news conference in Toronto.
“I will work out with the party officials the best timing for a departure so we can arrange for a succession in due time.”
He indicated that he expects his successor will likely be chosen in the fall.
The self-described “natural governing party” was reduced to a distant third with a mere 34 seats and less than 20 per cent of the popular vote — the party’s worst electoral showing in history.
Liberal support collapsed in the face of a strong surge by Jack Layton’s NDP. Vote splitting by the NDP and Liberals in many ridings, particularly in Ontario, propelled Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to a solid majority.
Ignatieff turned up his nose at the suggestion of a merger between the Liberals and the NDP. He said he has “a great deal of respect for Bob Rae” — his former college roommate and one-time leadership rival — but believes the two parties hail from “different traditions.”
And he predicted the Liberals will rise again.
“I think that Canada really needs a party of the centre and I will always believe that. I think the surest guarantee of the future of the Liberal party of Canada is four years of Conservative government and four years of NDP official Opposition.”
Rae, a former NDP premier of Ontario, said he’s not promoting a merger; he’s simply recognizing that debate over uniting the centre-left will inevitably take place.
“It’s hard to see how the discussion could be avoided,” said Rae, who acknowledged he’s “thinking about” running to succeed Ignatieff.
“Whatever happens, the Liberal party needs to think long and hard about what it really believes in and what it really stands for and it also has to look long and hard at the political framework in which we’re all working.”
Rae said there’s been “an evolution” among all parties and “it would be irresponsible not to listen to what Canadians think about this question.”
Given their party’s severely weakened state, some Liberals fear merger is code for a takeover by the newly empowered NDP.
But Rae countered: “It can never be about one party taking over another party. The discussion has to be about is there a possibility of a new, broader alliance. And if there is, fine. If there isn’t, that’s fine too.”
Ignatieff said the party’s dismal showing had a lot to do with a relentless Tory campaign of attack ads that began long before the election, portraying him as a disloyal opportunist and part-time Canadian.
“Of course they attacked me, of course they vilified me, of course they engaged in an absolutely unscrupulous campaign of personal attack,” he said.
People who met him in person were often surprised, he said, “because I didn’t turn out to be quite as bad as the ads portrayed me.”
Ignatieff took responsibility for the debacle, saying: “The only thing Canadians like less than a loser is a sore loser, and I go out of politics with my head held high.”
Still he said Canadians deserve better from their politics and their politicians, adding: “and I leave politics with a strong desire that Canadians are better served in future.”
He said he intends to return to teaching “young Canadians.”
For the last two weeks, the Liberals had pinned their electoral hopes on reinvigorating their traditional base of voters. It was believed that an estimated 800,000 Liberals didn’t vote in 2008 and Ignatieff was counting on getting them back.
He said he will consult with party officials about the timing of his departure and has asked deputy leader Ralph Goodale to convene the caucus next week to choose an interim leader.
Under Liberal party rules, a leadership convention must be held within six months of Ignatieff’s formal announcement that he intends to retire.
Ignatieff said he’s hopeful that some younger successor — “I hope it’s a young woman” — will be able to restore the party’s lustre.
“I hope there will be people coming after me who look at me today and say, ’He didn’t make it, but I will.”’