Shortly after Bob Rae was first elected in 1978, John Diefenbaker, the former prime minister who remained a MP until his death in 1979 at the age of 83, imparted two pieces of advice: “Don’t take any s–t from anybody,” and “Go for the throat every time.”
These might be words to live by, but Rae looked elsewhere for inspiration—to Allan MacEachen, the legendary Liberal, and Tommy Douglas, the patron saint of the NDP. MacEachen was a commanding presence who taught Rae you couldn’t be yelling all the time, that you had to have “more than one gear.” Douglas was disciplined and practical. He cracked jokes and didn’t hold grudges. And it was Douglas who told him to eschew notes when speaking in the House. “Because as soon as you start to do it, he says, you lose all the spontaneity and all the effect,” Rae recalls.
Here are the makings of a master of the House.
Rae doesn’t so much speak as hold forth. The leader of the third party, one with interim in his title at that, he could easily be ignored, relegated to a footnote in the major debates of the day between the government and the official Opposition. He might, at the very least, strain noticeably and unflatteringly for everyone’s attention. But no one holds the attention of this 41st Parliament like Bob Rae. “The House is a raucous place and it doesn’t give much quarter,” says Ralph Goodale, the Liberal deputy leader, “but when Bob gets to his feet, people listen.”
It owes something to a different time. When he asked his first question in the House it was of finance minister Jean Chrétien. When he stood to deliver his maiden speech, he heard heckles from Ray Hnatyshyn and Lincoln Alexander, a future governor general of Canada and a future lieutenant general of Ontario respectively. He moved the motion that brought down Joe Clark’s government and watched as Pierre Trudeau debated the Constitution. The proceedings had only just begun to be televised when he first arrived. The House didn’t seem then to be so ritualistically antagonistic. Discipline of message was not the dominating force it is now.
He is a link to this past. A throwback, even. But he is not yesterday’s man. He is the man entrusted to keeping the Liberal flame. And he is Stephen Harper’s toughest test each afternoon. Witness that day last month when Rae led a reasoned, even heartfelt, debate on suicide prevention—a rare moment of enlightenment in a brutal fall sitting. “I still have this, maybe naive, but I don’t think it is, this notion,” Rae says, “that the House should be a place where big ideas are shared and people are listening to each other and trying to make progress.”