OTTAWA — Several high-profile Manitoba Liberals Wednesday threw their support behind former MP Sheila Copps' bid to become the party's next president.
Just over a week before the Liberal biennial convention in Ottawa, Copps released a list of more than four dozen endorsements from current and former MPs, senators and other Liberal bigwigs. The list includes University of Winnipeg president and former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, former Assembly of First Nations national chief Ovide Mercredi and Manitoba's sole Liberal MP, Kevin Lamoureux. Retired senator Sharon Carstairs also backs Copps.
Lamoureux said he feels Copps is the most dynamic and experienced candidate, and he believes she will help turn the party around.
The importance of the election of the president and the decisions being debated at the convention next weekend can't be overstated, he said.
"If this convention fails and we don't make some smart decisions, we're setting ourselves up for mediocre," he said. "And mediocre means staying in opposition for the foreseeable future."
The Liberals have been soul-searching since the party was reduced to a third-place finish in the May election. With just 34 MPs elected, it was the worst Liberal showing in Canadian history and marked the first time in Canadian history the Liberals are neither government nor official Opposition in the House of Commons.
The choice of a party president is receiving more attention than usual in part because of the Liberals' renewal process. With the leadership contest put off until 2013, it's the first chance Liberals have to put a stamp on party renewal since the election.
Copps is one of five people seeking the presidency. Also on the ballot are Mike Crawley, former president of the Liberals' Ontario wing, Ron Hartling, president of the Liberal riding association for Kingston and the Islands, former Quebec MP Alexandra Mendes and Charles Ward, former vice-president of Air France Cargo and the sole candidate from Western Canada.
Crawley has the support of current and former Liberal Party of Canada (Manitoba) presidents Christian Monnin and Sharon MacArthur.
Many of the candidates are running on platforms to re-engage grassroots Liberals, give more power to riding associations, improve membership drives and improve fundraising.
Copps plans to appoint a spokesman in every riding to respond to government actions. Their first assignment will be to respond to and engage local Liberals when the government releases its budget in spring. She also plans to use social media and schedule at least three events with national speakers in each riding each year.
Crawley was in Winnipeg Wednesday stumping for votes with delegates from Manitoba's 14 ridings. He said the Liberals have to stop thinking the election last May was the big loss and realize the party has been losing supporters for more than three decades. "We've only defeated a single united Conservative party once since 1980," he said.
Crawley said the party has to become a party of ideas again, and proposed giving more weight to ideas from supporters. Online forums, where ideas can be proposed, debated and voted on, should be happening all the time, he said. Ideas that get support should go to caucus and the party executive for discussion and should be included in policy unless the leader or the executive can give a written reason why not.
The convention will also include debates and discussions on hot-button issues such as legalizing marijuana and establishing a preferential ballot for elections.
The most anticipated resolution is a proposal to elect the next leader using a U.S.-style primary contest, in which anyone who wants to pledge themselves as a Liberal would be able to vote. Contests and votes would be held in each province to allow as many people as possible to participate.