Pretender to the Liberal throne

Peter C. Newman on Bob Rae, the man who could be king

If Bob Rae uses this week’s Liberal party convention in Ottawa to drop the “interim” label affixed to his job description, he will shatter the party’s iron rule of succession. Long before they became Canada’s Natural Governing Party, the Grits recognized the country’s twin cultural roots by strictly alternating between English and French leaders. The honour roll went from Mackenzie to Laurier, to King, to St. Laurent, to Pearson, to Trudeau, to Turner, to Chretien, to Martin, to Dion, to Ignatieff. That bycultural line was not, ever, negotiable.

Rae’s future has become a litmus test of the party’s future, if it has any. Even during the half decade the Michael Ignatieff Caper lasted, Rae’s presence was a daily concern: to himself (feeling under-used and over-anxious); to his fellow MPs (who cornered him to test his Liberal credentials); and for Iggy (whose friendship with the renegade NDPer turned into a duel that became a feud).

Rae has always been an enigma, embedded in the Jewish culture but growing up among Anglican mentors. A one-time political outcast among Toronto’s legal elites, he joined Goodmans, Bay Street’s leading Jewish legal factory, and by playing up his buoyant personality instead of his political record, was accepted as a public service gadabout and itinerant barroom piano player.

Unlike most contenders for the threadbare Liberal throne, Rae had made enemies effortlessly during his time as the only socialist premier in Ontario’s uptight history, when he almost bankrupted the province. Following Rae’s assumption of power in 1990, the business community, afraid of the Barbarian at their gates, panicked. The mood did not improve when a CityTV commentator, the late Colin Vaughan, asked Ontario’s then-treasurer, Floyd Laughren (better known as “Pink Floyd”), exactly when his government “lost its grip on reality.” The minister thought for a minute, then replied with a quip: “It’s hard to pin down precise dates on these things.”

One of the stranger events on Bob Rae’s watch was the Shelley Martel episode. A leading cabinet minister, she had to undergo a lie detector test—to prove that she had lied. On December 5, 1991, Martel became involved in a vicious public exchange about Northern Ontario health care costs with Evelyn Dodds, a key Thunder Bay municipal councilor. Martel ended a rant by declaring that her government was considering legal action against Sudbury doctor Jean-Pierre Donahue on the grounds that his billing practices were illegal, also claiming she had seen an adverse confidential government report on Donahue’s medical practices. Dodds promptly accused Martel of professional slander, and having illegal access to privileged information. In response, Martel insisted she had actually lied to Dodds, and that her accusations had been fabricated in a moment of anger, at the same time denying that she had seen any secret files.

Who to believe? Only one solution: Martel underwent a voluntary lie detector test to prove that she had lied—a first in Canadian political history. She passed the test without cracking a smile. A 1992 parliamentary commission verified the second version of Martel’s story and Rae kept her in cabinet. (There is no record of him having asked her: “What were you thinking?”)

Except for its shattered credit rating, King-Kong-size deficits and the freefall of its industrial base—Ontario survived the Rae debacle, with most power brokers swearing never to allow the NDP near power again.

An apocryphal story that went the rounds at the time involved three unhappy heavy hitters from Bay Street trying to get next to the Rae government so they could extract the odd favour. One of them suggested that his wife had a picture taken with a guy who knew a guy who worked in Rae’s Queen’s Park office. Another claimed he had gone to summer camp with a friend who later became Rae’s barber. “Oh hell!” the third Bay Streeter cut off the debate in a fit of frustration. “Let’s use my cleaning lady. She’s in his cabinet.”

The Rae family denied its Jewish origins until the 1968 Liberal convention, when Pierre Trudeau introduced himself to Jennifer Rae (Bob’s sister) by whispering to her, “Will you go out with me?” They courted, became a steady item and there was serious talk of an imminent engagement. But it never happened. The beauteous Jennifer became a senior executive at IMAX Corporation and faded from view.

Fearing a publicity blitz when the marriage rumours were still alive, Bob’s father, Saul, called the family together and announced to their surprise that they were not Raes at all, but Cohens—that they were Jewish, not Anglican, as they had pretended. The news hit Bob the hardest. From then on, he ate mainly at Jewish restaurants, went out exclusively with Jewish girls, and married one, the magnificent Arlene Perly.

“His life is the road I didn’t take,” Ignatieff once told me about Rae. Actually, it was the other way round. It was Rae, who at the crucial moment in their political lives manoeuvred Ignatieff into being ignominiously dumped at the 2006 Liberal leadership convention. Rae pointedly declined to pledge his supporters to his [alleged] best friend after he was dropped from the race. By releasing his followers, instead of being the king-maker, Rae became the king-spoiler—and the “king” never forgave him.

Following the 2006 leadership contest (won by Stéphane Dion) their friendship became a closed subject to Ignatieff, but Rae persisted (for instance, in private e-mails to Jane Taber of the Globe) that their relationship “is an enduring one” and that they must speak every couple of weeks. At one point, Rae messaged Ignatieff: “We’ve got to find a way through this so we don’t blow ourselves up.” There never was a reconciliation.

Following the May 2, 2011 blood-letting and Ignatieff’s vanishing act, Rae accepted the default position as the party’s interim leader. Most observers assumed this was a feint for Rae’s intention of using those training wheels to claim the real thing. He now expects delegates at the Ottawa convention to clear his path.

If it succeeds, his grab for power will leave him in charge of the Liberal party’s campaign in the next federal election, due in 2015. By then, Bob Rae will have turned 67, not the ideal age to take over the wiggling remnants of a political movement on its last legs.

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