THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - Shattered Liberals will wait up to two years to choose a new leader, hoping the delay will give them a fighting chance against rival parties bent on wiping them off Canada's federal political map.
Some 2,000 delegates to a special "virtual convention" voted Saturday to postpone a leadership vote until sometime between March 1 and June 30, 2013.
That's an even greater delay than proposed by party brass, who had wanted 18 to 22 months to rebuild before choosing a permanent replacement for Michael Ignatieff.
Ignatieff resigned after leading the self-styled "natural governing party" to its worst defeat in history in the May 2 election. The Liberals were reduced to a third party rump with only 34 MPs; Ignatieff lost his own seat.
Toronto MP Bob Rae was named interim leader last month and will continue to hold down the fort until a permanent successor is chosen.
In a speech at the start of the teleconference convention, which was streamed live on the Liberal party's website, Rae said both Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Jack Layton's NDP would like to "destroy the Liberal party" for good, leaving a polarized choice between parties of the right and left.
Liberals, he said, have to fight back by rebuilding the party, root and branch, and that will take time. While he did not express a preference for any precise date, Rae urged delegates to defer a leadership vote and give the party time pull itself up off the mat.
"We need to take the time to make the right choices and to make those important strides on fundraising, organization and policy."
Rae added that rebuilding "is not just a name for doing whatever we normally do between elections.
"Something different happened on May 2. This has put us in a different place, we need to do things differently this time."
Delegates were presented with a number of options, both longer and shorter than the 18-22 month delay proposed by party brass. In the end, they picked the option that provided for the longest delay.
They were persuaded in that choice by former leader Stephane Dion, who reminded delegates of the hatchet jobs done on him and Ignatieff by relentless Tory attack ads. Liberals, he argued, must not choose a new leader until they've amassed the money and organization needed to fight back against the inevitable Tory onslaught.
"The defeat has been very severe. The party has a monumental task to do. We should do it step by step," Dion said in a later interview, adding that "the only good news of this disastrous (election) result" is that Liberals have plenty of time to pull themselves back together.
If Liberals choose a leader before undertaking any rebuilding, Dion said, "The leader will be without any protection facing the Conservatives."
He predicted the Tories will try to do to the next leader what they did to him and Ignatieff, define the person "in a very negative way," as "an ugly, unsympathetic person, unable to be a leader, not a Canadian, willing to tax them like crazy."
And he said Canadians will believe it unless the Liberal party is ready to counter the attacks.
"And for that we need greater organization, good fundraising, good communications in the social media and the traditional media."
In particular, Dion said the party must be able to hit back in kind when the Tories spend millions on negative ads in prime time — something the Liberals could not afford when Dion and Ignatieff came under sustained fire.
"If they put (ads) in the Superbowl and we answer on Facebook ... it's not enough. You can't compete and then, the election starts and people think they know you," he said, speaking from bitter experience.
Under the party's constitution, Liberals should choose a successor within five months of a leader's resignation — that is, by October of this year. Few, if any, Liberals had the stomach to plunge immediately into a leadership contest so soon after the May 2 bloodbath.
Hence, at Saturday's convention they amended the constitution to allow a delay for up to two years.
They also voted to delay the party's biennial policy convention, which was supposed to be held by the end of this year, until Jan. 13-15, 2012.
Some Liberals supported holding a leadership vote no later than the fall of 2012. Jeff Jedras, who moved that proposal, argued that rebuilding and new leadership go hand in hand and the party must "walk and chew gum at the same time."
One supporter of Jedras's proposal maintained that leadership contests are divisive and shouldn't be dragged out unnecessarily. Another said an earlier contest would give the new leader more time to become known by Canadians before the next election in four years.
But the overwhelming mood of the delegates was to put off the contest as long as possible. Fully 89 per cent ultimately supported the two-year delay.
By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press