Supporters of Paul Martin have apparently become so bored with the fight for the Liberal leadership that they have turned their attention to the undercard bouts.
The new hot race in Gritdom is the battle for the Liberal party presidency, and the Martin forces are arriving quite late in the process with what appears to be a hand-picked candidate.
Up until last week, it was a three horse affair between Toronto policy wonk Akaash Maharaj, MP Mac Harb and Winnipeg's own Greg Ashley. Harb was appointed this month to the Senate and it is unclear whether he is still pursuing the presidency.
Now, out of nowhere, Martinites are touting Mike Eizenga, a London, Ont., lawyer and former Ontario Liberal provincial Party president, for the federal party presidency. Eizenga was in Winnipeg last week with senior Martin operatives to rally the troops before November's leadership convention.
At first, many Martin supporters thought the rumour that their leadership hopeful was trying to bring in an "endorsed" candidate into the race for party president was a bit of a joke. Most of the notable federal Liberals in Manitoba have thrown their support behind Maharaj, chairman of the party's policy committee, who has been actively campaigning for the presidency for two years. He is an open Martin supporter, and as such has drawn support from local Martinites such as MPs John Harvard and Anita Neville, who co-chair his campaign in Manitoba.
Grunts who have been working to support Ashley and Maharaj were appalled to find out that just two months before the convention, the man who would be king is changing the rules of the game. "It's just completely unfair," said one loyal Martinite. To corner the race for the party presidency could backfire on them. As a result, local Martin organizers have flatly denied that any directive has come from the central campaign to support Eizenga. In an interview earlier this month, Winnipeg South MP Reg Alcock, Martin's Manitoba wagon master, said he was "aware" Eizenga may enter the race, but denied that it was a Martin-led campaign to get him elected.
Of course, Alcock neglected to mention that he was showcasing Eizenga at a meeting of Martin supporters that same night. About 60 people gathered at the Martin campaign offices at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard to hear national strategists lay out plans for the delegate selection meetings on Sept. 19-21. Eizenga was there, being led around the room to meet local Liberals.
Many of those in attendance said Eizenga was never formally sold as a candidate for the presidency. But most of the Manitoba Martinites were also well aware what was going on. "It's very cynical and another example of the fact the Martin organizers don't really think about how these things are going to play out," said one senior Liberal insider. "It seems like they don't really care."
The fact is, no leader of a federal party has ever been ambivalent about who holds the party presidency. As Martin has shown throughout this leadership tilt, his ability to massage party membership rules has been a key factor in his ability to eclipse his rivals. He got the opportunity to massage those rules because his supporters have systematically captured key party posts, both at the provincial and federal level.
The real problem is that Martin's campaign has been a triumph of bully tactics. There are no written rules which require leadership battles to be conducted according to Marquis of Queensbury rules. These internal battles are among the least altruistic pursuits a politician can engage in; it's the one time it's all about power with no distractions for the public good.
Unfortunately, only a fool would think Liberals, and the public, are going to forget the overkill Martin's supporters have used to get where they are today. Those who bet on the right candidate should be able to claim the spoils of the war. But the ripples of this leadership campaign will be felt for some time after the November convention. When Martin's campaign is trying to decide whether to formally support Eizenga for the party presidency, perhaps they will think of that.