On the subject of the Liberal party circa May 2011, and specifically how the most dominant political institution of the 20th century has come to be in its present situation, Bob Rae recalls some words offered to him by the late Philip Givens, a former mayor of Toronto who also served in the House of Commons and the Ontario legislature. “He once said to me,” Rae recalls, adopting a nasal tone to impersonate Givens, “ ‘Bobby, in politics, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what’s coming to you.’ ”
So fated does the Liberal Party of Canada now find itself with 34 seats, relegated to third-party status in the House of Commons for the first time in its history and confronted with myriad questions about its purpose and future. From his place within this shrunken caucus, Bob Rae has to decide, after a long and varied career of public life, what he is to do next. And with the stories of the Liberal party and Rae having come to this, the first question seems to be how they will move forward together.
“I want to be a constructive member of the team and I’m happy to help in any way that I can,” he says, “but obviously I want to make sure, I think everybody wants to make sure, that everybody knows what we’re getting ourselves into—and right now it’s still a little unclear to me.”
Indeed, first to be sorted out is who shall lead the Liberal caucus on an interim basis, or rather on what grounds that person shall be selected. According to prerequisites proposed by the party’s board of directors, any interim leader would have to be bilingual, commit to not pursuing any kind of merger arrangement with the NDP and also, crucially, recuse himself or herself from the race to lead the party on a permanent basis. As of this writing, only one candidate has publicly stepped forward—Montreal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau—but it appears an interim chief will be chosen on or around the next meeting of the Liberal caucus on May 25. From there, the party will have to proceed to a race to choose its next official leader, but it is so far unclear how and when this might occur. It is possible, under guidelines proposed by the party’s national board, that a new, permanent leader will not be chosen until 2013.
Asked about both the interim and permanent jobs, Rae sets the latter aside as a decision that can’t be made until more is known about the race to fill it. And while former prime minister Jean Chrétien has reportedly reached out to Liberals to promote Rae and veteran MPs Carolyn Bennett and Denis Coderre have publicly recommended Rae for the temporary post, Rae himself is demure on the subject of interim leadership. “Maybe it’s just kind of an old-fashioned sense of mine, but I don’t think it’s a job that you campaign for,” he says. “To me it’s kind of a consensus that emerges from the discussion, and from what I can tell that discussion is still under way.” Regardless of the various bridges to be crossed, is he interested in leading the party in the interim? “Well, I wouldn’t be having conversations with people if I wasn’t,” he allows. “It’s not so much being interested in the job as I think we’re all trying to figure out how we can be part of a successful effort in getting the show on the road.”
The case for Rae in the short term is straightforward enough—he is an experienced politician who can be an eloquent voice for the party in Parliament and in the media—but the situation for him and the party is complicated by hypotheticals and variously ironic. Twice already he has put forward his name for leader—in 2006 and 2008—and twice he was passed over. Now he is hailed as a beacon of stability, only for a much-diminished party. But accepting the interim position now might preclude a run for the permanent post later. Even if he does manage to pursue the latter, his age (he turns 63 in August) and his track record (specifically his time in the early ’90s as the NDP premier of Ontario) may be held against him.
“If you’re coaching a hockey team, you want to get your best guys in the game,” says Rodger Cuzner, the veteran Liberal MP from Nova Scotia. “And when you’ve got a guy like Bob in caucus, you want to get him in the game.” But projecting years into the future, in search of the next full-fledged leader of the Liberal party, the hockey metaphors become more involved. “The question for the Liberals is: do you put your best player on the ice even though you’re in last place and he may not be around when you’re winning again?” wonders Liberal strategist Rob Silver. “Or do you trade him in for a bunch of young guys who you can rebuild the team around?”
Whatever role he fills for the Liberal side, Rae will have to watch as the party he left nine years ago—the NDP—enjoys the benefits of 103 seats and official Opposition. His ideological and temperamental differences with the NDP remain and he claims no regrets about that move to the Liberals, after representing the NDP in Ottawa as an MP and later as premier. “Every other successful social democratic party in the Western world has had to abandon certain central premises of the democratic socialist narrative and so far the NDP has not done so,” he says. “At the federal level, they continue to kind of parrot lines about the economy and lines about how things need to happen that frankly have never made any sense.”
Of both the NDP’s recent success and his own side’s recent defeat, he counsels caution. “Everybody over-reads their mandate, everybody over-reads the result,” he says. “So the NDP will over-read their result, the Conservatives will over-read theirs and frankly, a lot of Liberals will over-read ours and they’ll say, ‘This is the end, it’s all over’—and I don’t think that’s true.” Liberal renewal, he figures, will have to include discussions of policy and ideas, but also cultural change. The party must become more reflective of and committed to its membership and it must turn away from the spirit of “backbiting” and “infighting” that has often defined it over the last 30 years.
Of his own situation, he appeals to perspective. “The thing I learned long ago, and I think I learned—particularly when, within three or four years, my wife’s parents were killed in a car accident and my brother died of cancer at the age of 32—is there’s a whole lot more to life than politics,” he says.
Indeed, in the wake of historic defeat for the party and amid much consternation over its future, he is publicly projecting calm. “If the party says we don’t want you to do this, we don’t want you to do that, then that’s fine. I’ve got lots of stuff that I can do,” he says. “But I think there’s a lot of people out there in the party who want me to play a role and I’m very happy to play a role if I can be helpful.”
Whatever is now to come, he says he cannot be described as disappointed with what has transpired. “There’s nothing worse than going through life with your hand on the horn or just unhappy about various things. You know, good things happen, bad things happen,” he says. “If you count up all the really terrific people, both in politics and out of politics, who never became prime minister of Canada, or the leader of a political party, that’d be a pretty big group. I’ve seen people consumed by ambition and then I’ve seen people spend 20 years or 30 years of their life just disappointed, and I have no intention of becoming one of those people. Whatever happens, I’m going to be a happy guy.”