Where will Rae take the party? Speaking as a Liberal, I think we have the answer

It’s been 12 months since Rae became Interim leader; what do Liberals have to show for that? I’m afraid it isn’t much

There’s no need to speculate about what kind of Liberal Leader Bob Rae would be – he’s spent the past 12 months showing us. At the end of the day, Liberals have nothing to show for it.

“It’s important for the party to look very much to a new generation of leadership,” Mr. Rae said in the days after the 2011 election. Many of us were too dazed, too exhausted from the previous years’ battles to look for that new generation of leadership, much less ask what would the future hold for the Liberal Party. As those of us in Michael Ignatieff’s office packed up our desks and updated our resumes, we should have recognized what was happening. We should have recognized, because it was the same interim-to-permanent leader power play we had pulled a few short years ago.

Bob Rae was a gift in those early days of post-historic defeat. He was a strong voice to mind the shop, a jovial substitute teacher who genuinely seemed to have no ulterior motive beyond ensuring that Canadian liberalism had a voice, a hope and a champion.

How wrong we were. Like the captain of the Costa Concordia, Mr. Rae has taken the helm of the ship he was trusted to mind and steered it into shallow waters in a brazen attempt to showcase his own attributes – his quick-witted comebacks in the House; his ease in off-the-cuff interviews; his ability to run a leaner, more disciplined organization on a smaller budget – rather than use his leadership position to ensure Canadian liberalism makes it safely to its final destination – one that has increasingly become something along the lines of “get at least 36 seats in the next election.”

While no formal rule prevents Mr. Rae from running for permanent leader, he made a promise when he took the job that he would not do so. A politician’s word is the promise that binds him not only to his constituents and his party, but to every Canadian, to folks of all political stripes. Just like political staffers serve at the pleasure of their bosses, politicians can and should be held accountable by the public they seek to represent.

Bob Rae could have been upfront with Canadians. Rather than playing coy about his not-so-secret desire to be Liberal Leader, he could have admitted he had leadership ambitions, stepped aside from the interim job, and kicked off his campaign by advancing bold new policy ideas that would propel the party forward, to the benefit of all Canadians. He still would have had the opportunity to showcase his political skills in the House, while at the same time raising the bar for other Liberal leadership candidates.

Instead, his dithering took the spotlight away from efforts being made by Liberals across the country to rebuild the party and regain the trust of those who have left in recent years, only to find themselves wandering in the political desert – too socially progressive for the Conservatives but too fiscally responsible for the NDP.

Mr. Rae made the decisions that were in his own best interests, and it is centrist Canadians who will pay the price. Under Mr. Rae’s watch, political moderates have been left with a shadow of policy. When viewed in aggregate, through the lens of Mr. Rae’s leadership desires, even the most casual observer can detect that policy appears to have been crafted as a bargaining chip to attract support from the 34 other Liberal MPs, rather than designed in an attempt to solve any of the problems that Canadians face on a daily basis.

This isn’t the fault of the staffers in Mr. Rae’s office, nor is it the fault of the Liberal MPs who sit in his caucus. An individual staffer or a lone MP can only go as far as her leader will permit. The Liberal Party used to provide Canadians with bold policies – the Green Shift, the Clarity Act, the Kelowna Accord and the Learning Passport, just to name a few. Under Mr. Rae’s watch, the Liberal machine has withered to a campaign-in-a-box. Instead of serving as their champion, Mr. Rae offers the centrist majority of Canadians a strongly worded online petition or a call for the resignation of a minister. Liberal voices have disappeared into the abyss that is the “also said” at the bottom of a news article, leaving the headlines for Thomas Mulcair’s divisive politicking and an increasingly undisciplined Conservative backbench.

Canada didn’t get legalized gay marriage, a legacy of peacekeeping, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, bilingualism, a strong economy, universal healthcare and national unity with an online petition. Liberal leaders made bold declarations, that this is the Canada we want for ourselves and for generations of Canadians to come.

Individual Liberals have made remarkable strides to rebuild their riding associations, reinvigorate former members and reach out to the next generation of Liberals to ensure the party exists long into the future. But this is a country of remarkable, motivated people; likely these grassroots members would have done so on their own accord.

It’s been 12 months since Bob Rae became Interim leader; what do Liberals have to show for that? I’m afraid it isn’t much more than what we woke up with the morning after Election Day.

Jordan Owens is a Toronto-based communications consultant and was a communications aide to former Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

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