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From marijuana to the monarchy, Liberals plan a path forward

Liberals who faced the prospect of oblivion mere months ago are gathering under brighter skies to plot their party's future at this weekend's biannual convention.

Eight months after their drubbing in last May's election, poll numbers have become more encouraging, fundraising is going well and the Conservatives have handed the opposition some potent ammunition on environmental and social issues – such as claiming that opponents of oil pipelines are foreign radicals and arguing that same-sex marriages of foreigners wed in Canada may not be legal.

Delegates have some big decisions to make over the coming two days. One of them isn't even on the agenda. Here are some of the things delegates will ponder on the convention floor and in the hospitality suites nearby.

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To primary or not to primary?

The outgoing executive has proposed that the next permanent Liberal leader be chosen through a series of primaries such as are currently underway in the United States. Anyone who wanted to could vote for the leader simply by signing a declaration of Liberal principles and thus becoming a supporter. The idea is to open up the party to tens and even hundreds of thousands of people who would have a say in choosing the new leader and a stake in the party's success.

But there is a lot of resistance among delegates to the idea, which could be expensive and could backfire in any number of ways.

Alexandra Mendes, who is campaigning to become party president, is "very hesitant" to endorse the idea of primaries. Placing such emphasis on the leader "isn't necessarily the best way to go in a parliamentary system," she said in an interview. Allowing supporters to vote for the leader would "devalue the loyalty" of full party members, in her view.

Who's the next president?

Speaking of Ms. Mendes, the former Montreal MP is a dark horse in the race to become the next party president who just might surprise frontrunners Sheila Copps, the Chrétien-era cabinet minister, and Mike Crawley, former head of the party's Ontario wing. Whoever wins must lead the party's executive as it struggles to revive up to 100 moribund ridings and to raise money now that the Tories are cutting off public subsidies.

Other resolutions

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Delegates will vote on a raft of non-binding resolutions, which include such interesting proposals as building high-speed rail lines and legalizing marijuana. The one that has raised eyebrows the most is a proposal from the Young Liberals to abolish the monarchy and create a made-in-Canada head of state.

Bob Rae for leader?

It isn't on the official agenda, but interim leader Bob Rae's future will be much on the delegates' minds. A barnburner of a speech to caucus this week fuelled speculation that he wants the permanent job. So one big decision for the new executive will be whether to overturn the previous executive's decision and allow Mr. Rae to run.

How does choosing a 63-year-old former NDP premier of Ontario signal renewal for the Liberal Party? The very question "suggests there's a terrible ageism at play," believes Aidan Johnson, the 32-year-old policy chair for Ms. Copps's campaign. "To suggest someone isn't capable of renewing the party because of their age is profoundly bigoted."

Which demonstrates that the conversations among Liberals on and off the convention floor this weekend will be nothing if not lively.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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