Nearly 16 months after Wade MacLauchlan stepped down, the Liberal Party of P.E.I. is taking initial steps toward choosing his successor as permanent party leader.
Interim leader Sonny Gallant said a leadership committee is currently being formed to set the rules and pick a date for a convention, which he said could come as early as this fall.
Gallant said the party was taking steps along the road to rebuilding after its defeat in the 2019 provincial election — and then the pandemic struck.
"We had started going across the province and having meetings and of course when COVID hit, that just stopped all that," said Gallant.
"Now that we're able to get back together we can do it in smaller groups, and social distance when we can get a big enough room."
In terms of timing for a convention, Gallant said "I don't know for sure if that will be this fall or early next spring… That's up to the provincial executive."
Back in July, a party spokesperson told CBC via email that the provincial executive had met recently via Zoom and had a "preliminary discussion" around the topic of leadership, and that an organizing committee was putting together a "rough framework for the nomination process."
The party said it was considering "alternative events" for a leadership convention given the pandemic, but offered no further comment, saying more information would be available in late August or in September.
Gallant said it's up to the party's executive to determine how to move forward choosing a new leader given the current restrictions on public gatherings.
"COVID's played havoc with a lot of things," he said. "We also know things can still be done during COVID, but it's made things more difficult."
COVID's played havoc with a lot of things. - Sonny Gallant, interim leader of P.E.I. Liberals
For the first time in its history, the P.E.I. Liberal Party was relegated to third-party status in the 2019 election that brought the PCs to power with a minority government under Dennis King. The Liberals currently hold six seats in the legislature, behind the Green Party with 8.
The election gave the Greens Official Opposition status for the first time ever in Canada.
The PCs won 12 seats on election night and picked up a 13th seat in a deferred election roughly three months later.
Lack of permanent leader carries risks, says prof
UPEI political scientist Don Desserud said he believes the Liberals have been putting off holding a leadership convention in the hopes of timing it to build momentum heading into the next election.
But he said that's a risky gambit given that, with a minority government, "you don't really have a good idea when that election is going to be. It could happen anytime. You could get caught off guard."
Voters in New Brunswick are headed back to the polls next month after Blaine Higgs called a snap election earlier this week, hoping to strengthen the position of his own minority government.
Desserud noted the P.E.I. Liberals themselves caught the Tories off guard in 2015 by calling an early election, forcing the PCs to rush their leadership campaign. The winner of that campaign, Rob Lantz, failed to win his own seat in the election that came just two months later.
But Desserud said there's another risk for the Liberals, in that they can't position themselves as a government-in-waiting without a permanent leader in place.
"You're not going to be able to do your job. You're not going to be able to be the effective opposition that you want to be," said Desserud. "If you're not able to do that, then basically the government has a free ride."
Interim leader can't set policy
Gallant admitted the job of building the party back up has been limited during his tenure because as interim leader he can't set new policy or direction.
But one potential leadership candidate, Cornwall-Meadowbank MLA Heath MacDonald, said there could also be risks in the party moving ahead with a convention before it's fully prepared.
"We've seen in the past parties that rushed into leadership races and not necessarily were satisfied, moved in one direction then turned around and moved in another direction," said MacDonald.
"I think the Liberal Party being patient in charting their course, they're doing the right thing."
He said he hadn't yet decided whether to run for the party leadership.
"That'll be something that I'll have to discuss with family and put some long, hard thought into it."
The Liberal Party announced on Apr. 26, 2019 that Wade MacLauchlan was stepping down as leader, three days after his government went down to defeat in an election in which MacLauchlan failed to win his own seat.
Robert Mitchell was initially named interim leader, but stepped down from the position more than four months later, saying he was considering a run for permanent leader.
Sonny Gallant was named interim leader Sept. 16.
CBC asked Mitchell for an update on whether he plans to run but did not receive an immediate response.
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