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Liberals begin posturing for national leadership

Paul Martin’s face still graces the government of Canada’s website.Two weeks after the federal election that ousted him, Martin is…

Paul Martin’s face still graces the government of Canada’s website.

Two weeks after the federal election that ousted him, Martin is still the prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

But not for long, on both counts.

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper takes over as prime minister on Monday.

And Martin’s days as Liberal leader are also numbered, because he promised to step down before the next federal election.

But dates for an election and a Liberal leadership convention have yet to be determined.

“When the leader indicates they will be resigning, the national executive will pick a date within a year of that resignation,” said party spokeswoman Kim Doran.

“Paul Martin indicated yesterday that he is still official leader of the party,” Doran said Thursday.

“So the clock has started in the sense that we know we’ll have a leadership convention, but there’s no fixed end date yet.”

The party executive will meet in Ottawa in March to discuss timing for the convention.

Until then, Martin remains leader, even though the Liberal caucus chose outgoing Defence minister Bill Graham as interim leader of the Official Opposition on Wednesday.

Lucienne Robillard was chosen as deputy leader.

But no one has formally announced their candidacy for the Liberal leadership, said Doran.

“I have no insight whether anybody is in or out. There will be a process by which people formally announce.”

To date, four high-profile Liberals have said they won’t run for the leadership: Frank McKenna, John Manley, Brian Tobin and Allan Rock.

That doesn’t mean any one of them can’t change their minds once the campaign begins, said Doran.

But there are several other possible candidates, from former leadership contenders like Sheila Copps to newly elected MPs, like Michael Ignatieff.

About a dozen names floated around the Liberal caucus meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday.

“I can think of 12 people that have already indicated that they may be interested or people have asked them (to run),” Yukon MP Larry Bagnell said Friday.

“There’s a lot of depth in the party, so I think it will be a large field even without some of the people that ran last time running again.”

But there’s not a sense of urgency, said Bagnell.

“If we were in the heavy throes of a campaign the people would be lobbying to try and get people on side early,” he said.

“I only had a representative of one potential candidate approach me.

“I talked to six of the potential candidates, just to say hi, and not one of them mentioned the leadership campaign.”

But Bagnell’s Ottawa office did get a phone call from an aide to Derek Lee, a Toronto-area MP, asking for Bagnell’s support.

“I haven’t expressed loyalty or support for any of the potential candidates yet,” he said.

“I was disappointed that Frank McKenna dropped out.”

Other possible candidates include outgoing ministers Stephane Dion, Ken Dryden, Scott Brison, Joe Volpe and Belinda Stronach, said Bagnell.

Other soon-to-be-former-ministers who lost their seats in the election, like Ann McLellan, have also expressed an interest, he said.

And a handful of backbench MPs, like Lee, could also be in the leadership mix.

“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” said Shayne Fairman, a Liberal organizer in the Yukon who helped run Bagnell’s campaign.

“There is no obvious frontrunner, so it will be a great convention to attend as a delegate because I think the outcome isn’t going to be predetermined,” Fairman said Thursday.

“I would think there would be several candidates for the leadership, so it will be an exciting time to consider our options.

“I would love to attend that convention. I would obviously need to secure a delegate spot.”

About 30 Liberals from the Yukon usually attend national leadership conventions, he added.

“I know a number of quality candidates will be stepping forward, and effectively, we will be selecting the leader of the Official Opposition, for now.

“Hopefully we’ll be selecting the future prime minister.”

There could be as many as 5,000 delegates at the Liberal convention, said Doran.

Bagnell anticipated a leadership convention sometime between November 2006 and March 2007.

It would be better to choose a leader sooner rather than later, he said.

With 124 seats in the House of Commons to 103 for the Liberals, Harper’s Conservative minority government could fall on a confidence motion, just like the Liberals did in December.

“If the Liberals all voted together we could keep them in power, and that’s a likely scenario, that we would keep them in power until we have a leader who is well-ensconced and prepared,” said Bagnell.

“But what happens if there are proposals that are totally unacceptable to all of the parties except the Conservatives, and if it was a confidence matter?

“Then what would we do?”

Bagnell estimated there are about 100,000 Liberal Party members in Canada.