Bob Rae has found his new political home with the Liberals

The former NDP premier hopes to end up in second spot on party's first ballot

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bob Rae knew what he was getting into when he signed up for the Liberal leadership race.

"I knew what hills I had to climb, and that the steep ones were at the beginning," Rae was saying the other day. "The first one was that I wasn't a Liberal, and the other one was my record as premier of Ontario."

Those are pretty steep hills all right, for a lifelong New Democrat who ran up record deficits in his five years in office at Queen's Park, which was nicknamed the Pink Palace during his tenure from 1990 to 1995.

But in truth, it has been years since Rae has felt at home in the NDP, a party determined to be stuck in the past, actually proud of its rigidly leftist ideology.

At the NDP convention in Quebec City the other day, Jack Layton dismissed Rae as "a failed one-term premier of Ontario," and then gave the knife an extra twist, calling him "a turncoat."

A few blocks away, Rae considered his break from the party he once unexpectedly led to power in Canada's most populous province.

"The NDP is actually proud of the fact that it is the party of old thinking," he said over breakfast on the morning of the latest Liberal all-candidates' meeting. "It is the most conservative party, small-c conservative party, in Canada. It is stuck, absolutely stuck."

For example, he looks at the NDP policy resolution on immediately withdrawing Canadian troops from our NATO mission in Afghanistan, and contemptuously waves it off as "cut and run."

As for the second steep hill, his unenviable record as premier of Ontario, Rae believes "the Ontario stuff is starting to turn on its head a bit; there's a general recognition that it was an extremely difficult time."

That's true up to a point - Rae governed through the recession of 1990-91, the steepest economic downturn since the 1930s. But his economic numbers are pretty ugly. In his five years in office, according to the Ontario Taxpayers Federation, Ontario took on $66 billion of new debt, more than doubling the $45-billion debt he inherited. In one mandate, he more than doubled the debt of all his predecessors in nearly a century and a quarter since Confederation. And in the country's industrial heartland, 100,000 jobs were lost.

These are not great numbers to take into an election campaign, unless you are taking them into the Conservative warroom to cut a bunch of attack ads. So parlous were Ontario's finances that teachers and public servants were forced to take up to 12 days a year of "Rae Days" - unpaid leave under a so-called Social Contract.

Even so, after leaving the NDP leadership following his defeat in 1995, Rae set about to reinvent himself. He joined a big Toronto law firm, Goodman Phillips, and built a major international practice. He kept his hand in public policy as head of the Forum of Federations, was chairperson of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, chaired a report on higher education for Ontario, and an inquiry into the Air India crash for the federal government. He has travelled to Iraq, and advised its shaky government on federalist solutions in that dangerously divided country.

It might have been one thing for Rae to find a home in the Liberal Party, but at first glance quite another for him to seek its leadership. Until you look at his supporters, beginning with his brother John Rae, the party's top campaign operative who organized two leadership campaigns and three winning general elections for Jean Chretien. There's no doubt Rae is the candidate of the party's Chretien wing, though he is quick to add of the recent Liberal civil wars, "we've got people who were with Paul Martin, we've got people who were with Chretien. As far as I'm concerned all that is behind us."

The Rae camp's strategy is clear - to finish second on the first ballot, and to grow on subsequent ballots when it becomes an old-style delegated convention. Rae's hope is that while Michael Ignatieff might lead on the first ballot, he will fall short and fall back from a lack of momentum and allies on the floor of the convention.

As it happens, Rae and Ignatieff are the oldest and closest of friends. But Rae wasn't pulling any punches the other day when he dismissively spoke of Ignatieff opening two Pandora's boxes on the constitution, with his call for recognition of Quebec as a nation, as well as a new division of powers among all levels of government.

Rae has been down that road before, in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, and he wouldn't easily go down it again.

Rae took note of where Ignatieff unveiled his Canadian manifesto: "He's a guy who talks about the constitution in Toronto but not in Montreal."

 
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