Liberals meet to ponder interim leader, future, Ignatieff says goodbye

Never ones to shy away from an old-fashioned internal battle, the various factions of the Liberal party have decided to stretch out even longer their debate over how to choose the next leader.

OTTAWA — Never ones to shy away from an old-fashioned internal battle, the various factions of the Liberal party have decided to stretch out even longer their debate over how to choose the next leader.

Only hours after outgoing leader Michael Ignatieff bid farewell to his caucus Wednesday, the remaining MPs and senators wrestled with a contentious leadership proposal drafted by the party’s executives.

The suggested rules would effectively block most of the senior, best-known MPs — notably Bob Rae — from becoming interim leader.

The candidate must be bilingual and promise not to seek the leadership on a permanent basis, among other conditions.

The caucus and the party’s national board ultimately decided that more consultation needed to occur within the party before any decision was taken on how to move forward.

A conference call with riding association presidents was scheduled for next week.

Executives will have to report back to the caucus on what they find.

If Parliament resumes before they name an interim leader, deputy-leader Ralph Goodale will represent the party in the Commons.

“There is no crisis here, we want to calm things down and work together and that’s why we decided to take a little bit of time to ensure we arrive at the right decision,” said Liberal House Leader David McGuinty.

The wrangling over the leadership rules came after an emotional caucus meeting in the morning that featured Ignatieff and other outgoing Liberal parliamentarians.

They came together for the last time in the historic railway committee room, where the Official Opposition holds its weekly caucus meeting. The NDP will now take over the space, relegating the Liberals to a smaller venue.

MPs stood to share anecdotes about their time in politics, and thanked their colleague for the good times.

“The only thing really to say is this: everybody always tells you how tough a game politics is and how brutal it is, but what they don’t say enough is how incredibly good the Canadian people are to you even when they don’t vote for you,” Ignatieff told reporters later, his wife Zsuzsanna Zsohar blinking back tears nearby.

“And as we take our leave of politics, I just wanted to express my enormous gratitude to all the people we met as we went along the road — their kindness, their civility…”

Ignatieff is leaving political life to take on a job at the University of Toronto, but other MPs say they’ll be back.

Martha Hall Findlay lost her Toronto-area seat, but reminded caucus that her predecessor Jim Peterson had once lost his seat and came back again the next time.

Colleague Bonnie Crombie was teary-eyed as she left the room.

“I think it was cathartic. We talked about staying together, being united, and rebuilding the team and rebuilding the party and being back in four years to win,” she said.

Newfoundland and Labrador MP Scott Simms, who is returning to the Commons, took heart in what an outgoing MP had to say.

“I think the quote I remember the most is that there’s no bad seats in the House of Commons,” said Simms. “A seat is a seat, and it gives me a greater appreciation for what I have. I’ve appreciated it all along, but when you hear that stuff it makes you realize how important this is and how you would miss that.”

Some senators are upset that under the proposed new guidelines their vote on interim leader would not carry the same weight as that of MPs.

A source said MP Carolyn Bennett argued during the caucus meeting that party president Alfred Apps should resign his post in the wake of the devastating election in which Liberals won only 34 seats. Apps shrugged off the challenge when asked about it later.

He said his duty now — according to the party constitution — was to make sure the party has an interim leader appointed by May 30.

Other MPs openly supported Rae as interim leader, including Quebec MP Denis Coderre and Ontario MP John McCallum.

Rae left the meeting without speaking to reporters.

He has privately expressed dismay that the board did not consult Liberal rank-and-file or the caucus when devising the plan. He was more cagey when speaking to reporters earlier in the day.

“The constitution of the party says simply that the board will nominate an interim leader after consulting with the caucus. It’s a consultation that’s beginning right now.”