Putting it off
For those just tuning in now, the Liberal constitution calls for a new leader to be crowned no longer than 5 months after the old leader resigns. That would mean an October vote, which most feel would be rushing things, given the next election is four years out. Luckily, the Liberal constitution is not so much chiseled in stone as drawn on an Etch E Sketch, so the party has called an "extraordinary" convention for June 18th to change the constitution and extend this timeline.
You can read the exact wording of the motions up for debate on the 18th here - the short of it is the National Executive must call the leadership race 5 months before it happens, with the vote held between November 2012 and February 2013.
Here's where it gets confusing. I'm talking Lost season 5 confusing.
If the leader is picked in November or December, anyone who signs up to be a Liberal member after September 1st of this year is eligible to vote. However, if the National Executive opts for a January or February vote, the membership race won't really be on until September 2012.
Well, at least in terms of membership sales. It's awfully naive to assume the race hasn't already started and won't be top of mind for the next 18 to 22 months. After all, with no more election speculation, the media will need something to fill their columns with, and there are only so many Ruth Ellen Brosseau stories one can write. On a slow news day, I'm sure it won't be very hard for the press gallery to find an anonymous Liberal willing to speculate about who will enter the race or who's "winning". If you thought the 2006 Liberal leadership race dragged on, be prepared for a contest over twice as long.
That's not to say there aren't benefits in a longer process. An October vote certainly feels rushed, especially with a slew of provincial elections coming down the pipe. An 18 month marathon would give party members time to properly scrutinize the candidates. And collect swag. Lots and lots of swag.
But there are many problems with the longer race. The first is that Liberals will be thinking about leadership rather than renewal when they elect party officials in January. After all, only the National Executive has the power to call the leadership convention and, as discussed above, there's a huge difference between a late 2012 and early 2013 vote in terms of the membership cut-off.
I also feel like it would be easier to get down to the business of party renewal after a leadership contest. Let's be honest - leadership is a distraction. Ideas will be judged on which candidates support them rather than their own merits. Many of the proposed changes will no doubt involve the leader, so it might be a good idea to have a leader before implementing them. And some of these changes will take time - if a new leader takes over in February 2013, by the time they have their office up and running, the party will have already shifted into election readiness mode.
Personally, I'd like to see a leadership vote sometime between April and June next year. To me, neither a 5 month nor an 18-22 month leadership contest are appealing options. That said, we're in uncharted waters here, so I could still be persuaded on the merits of either option with a compelling argument.
Most frustrating is that for all the talk of a "consensus forming" around this timeline, there was never a widespread effort to ask members what they thought. It's beyond me how a party able to organize a 3,000 person teleconference convention isn't capable of taking an online straw poll of its members to see what they think. At least then I'd feel more confident this is truly the timeline the membership wants.
Baring an amendment to the motion, we're either in for a chaotic leadership scramble or a slow 2-year leadership march that risks overshadowing the renewal process.