A Rae day on Parliament Hill

Just how 'interim' is the Liberal leader?

I’ve used words like “temp” and “stopgap,” I confess, to describe Bob Rae’s job as the Liberal party’s interim leader. But after listening to Rae’s rip-snorting speech to his party’s MPs on Parliament Hill today, I think I’ll be searching for new terminology.

Because he sure sounded like a guy auditioning for the permanent lead role in the third-place party in the House. Billed as half-hour address, the speech stretched for about 45 minutes—and featured a pointedly personal political message.

Rae’s obvious political liability is, of course, the lingering memory of his difficult 1990-95 stint as Ontario’s NDP premier. But given that he’s not supposed to be in the running for the federal Liberal leadership—a condition the party executive imposed when Rae accepted the interim job after last spring’s election—that historic baggage shouldn’t matter much these days.

Yet Rae used today’s event, a closely watched speech setting the tone for the Liberals’ biennial policy convention in Ottawa this weekend, to launch a spirited defence of his old Ontario record, lashing back at derisive comments the Conservatives have lately fired his way.

“Let me just respond very directly to the attacks I’ve seen the last couple of days,” he began. “Of course, it’s true, as you all know, when I was premier of Ontario, the province was faced with its worst recession since the last Depression.”

Rae went on to defend his Ontario government’s record. Did he engage in reckless deficit-spending? Everything’s relative. Rae said he boosted spending 15 per cent over four budgets—compared to a 40-per-cent rise in federal program spending in the first four budgets of the Harper government.

“I was,” Rae declared, “a piker compared to Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper.”

He also boasted that he spent wisely on infrastructure, including projects that were cancelled after Mike Harris’s Conservatives trounced his NDP in 1995. And Rae noted that key figures from that provincial Tory government—including Flaherty, Tony Clement and John Baird—are now prominent in Harper’s cabinet.

After he got through defending his own record, Rae ran through issues he suggested the Liberals could ride to redemption in a 2015 election that will mark, as he put it, the start of “the next progressive decade.” These ranged from defending universal healthcare and the CBC, to promoting more “open democracy” and a better future for First Nations.

He highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor. “It’s not unique to us. It’s a problem that’s shared across the industrialized world,” Rae said. “The answer to it is for us to create even more  prosperity, but to make sure that the prosperity of the next decade will be a prosperity that is deeply shared across every part of the country.”

By fastening on income polarization—the issue highlighted by last year’s “occupy movement” camp-in protests in many North American cities—Rae might have been taking a page from Barack Obama’s playbook. Last month, the U.S. president said inequality has emerged as “the defining issue of our time.”

But as Obama runs for reelection this year, will Rae be positioning to take over the Liberals for real in 2013? In a news conference late this afternoon, he refused to be pinned down.

Rae said his feisty speech today “merely reflects my enthusiasm for the work I’ve been doing as interim leader, full stop.” As for his agreement with the party executive that as interim leader he wouldn’t stand for the permanent job, he said “I will follow the rules.”

But what if the executive changes the rules? “It’s up to the executive of the party,” said Rae, adding, “I think this is all just idle speculation.”

Speculation he could quickly silence with a definitive comment on his future, but has chosen not to.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.