Oddly enough, the trouble commenced when Paul Martin honourably announced on election night that he intended to resign as Liberal leader. Under the party's constitution, the 60-member party executive must call a leadership convention within 12 months of the leader's resig-nation. Party loyalists hoped to persuade the former prime minister to delay his formal resignation for one or two months so they could have freewheeling policy debates in the autumn followed by a leadership convention in late winter. In a telephone conversation with party executives on Jan. 26, Mr. Martin declared that heintended to resign “soon,” and that he would consult them about the appointment of an interim leader. Party members breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Then the unexpected happened. After conversations with close supporters, including at least one Liberal senator, Mr. Martin changed his mind. The Liberal leader emerged from a caucus meeting on Feb. 1 with the news that former cabinet minister Bill Graham would replace him as parliamentary leader but that he would remain as party leader until his replacement was selected.
What happens if the government is defeated before Mr. Martin is replaced? Some want an early leadership convention; forget the policy debates. Others, especially members of the youth wing, want to delay the convention until March of 2007 so there will be time to scrutinize the many largely unknown contenders. Key party executives are apparently leaning toward late January, before the parliamentary session would resume.
In the meantime, party organizers can only hold their breath, because they do not want Mr. Martin to lead them into another election.
To handle that daunting possibility, insiders say key party executives have flatly told Mr. Martin that they will not permit him to lead the party into any snap election if he insists on appointing his long-time clique of advisers to key campaign roles where he would rely on their advice. Mr. Martin has absolutely refused to abandon those advisers. In response, to block an emergency comeback by Mr. Martin with the same tired crew of counsellors, executives are examining ways to select delegates well before the convention.
Paul Martin may be hoping to repeat the 1980 comeback of Pierre Trudeau following his initial 1979 resignation, but Parliaments and election campaigns are like snowflakes: no two alike.
The impending 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum gave the Liberals a credible reason to bring back Pierre Trudeau and force a snap election. Trudeau had the standing and the ability to lead the federalist forces in a way that Joe Clark certainly could not, and that other Quebec federalist leaders, such as Claude Ryan, would have been hard-pressed to.
It also helped to have as feckless a leader as Joe Clark trying to govern as he had a majority, and unable to count votes during a budget.
There is no great looming national crisis that even the Liberal Party thinks only Paul Martin can handle, let alone the country. The Liberals will have no more coherent a policy platform than they did last time, and after several months of even marginally competent Conservative government, a fear campaign will be practically ineffective.
The Liberals will have nothing to run on except hopes of buyer's remorse, with a leader who has lost all credibility among his own and who appears merely to be trying to make one desperate lunge at regaining power.
Bearing in mind that no two election campaigns are alike, it is just as likely that such an election would produce a replay not of 1980, but of 1958.