Entering the lobby of the Marriott Pinnacle Downtown Hotel early on a Sunday morning, I’m feeling sorry for Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
As he’s approaching his 63rd birthday and heading the third party in Canada—with only 34 seats in Parliament—it seems a bit sad that the former Ontario NDP premier has to get out of bed and be downstairs by 7:30 a.m. on a July weekend to talk to a reporter. When it comes to rebuilding a battered party, there’s not even time to eat Sunday breakfast alone.
But Rae keeps doggedly moving forward. After sitting down in the hotel coffee shop, he tells how he was in Kamloops the day before meeting with the riding executive. He also paid a visit to former Liberal senator Len Marchand, the first status Indian to be elected to Parliament.
On this morning, Rae doesn’t seem that interested in delivering pithy sound bites. Instead, he describes in gory detail all the steps that his party must take to return to its former glory, when it ruled Canada for most of the 20th century.
The Liberals have decided to renew themselves under Rae, who replaced former boss Michael Ignatieff, prior to crowning a new leader in 2013.
First off, Rae maintains that in his role, he must be interested in working out “organizational bugaboos” that have hampered the party's progress.
“I know it may not sound very exciting, but it’s basic issues of how people can communicate—how the leadership hears what’s going on,” he says. “How do we make sure that people are really understanding each other? So we’re reorganizing our websites and we’re really, really trying to get at some of the things that have bothered people.”
This is nuts-and-bolts retooling. Rae frankly acknowledges that some members have felt that they weren’t able to relate to policy decisions—or how they were being made.
He likens renewing the party to repairing three legs on a stool. Fixing internal communications and enhancing members' participation is one leg. The second is fundraising, and the third is crafting sensible policies.
“We don’t come at politics from a deeply ideological perspective,” Rae emphasizes. “But we do come at politics from a value perspective and an evidence perspective.”
And he wants the Liberals to be seen as the party that lets facts and evidence determine its positions.
“If you look at the criminal-justice issue, for example, I think we need to really mobilize opinion that throwing people in jail because they have five marijuana plants is really kind of preposterous,” he says.
Rae points out that the United States has demonstrated that it’s an “unsuccessful strategy” to incarcerate everybody.
“It doesn’t reduce crime and it doesn’t reduce violence,” he states. “It doesn’t increase people’s security. So there are lots of areas like that where we will have room as a party to clearly show the direction of policy that the country needs to go. Public policy needs to be based on evidence, based on facts—people’s understanding of the facts. The same is true with climate change. The same is true for economic policy where I think we need to be more creative about how we’re going to innovate successfully as a society.”
In his view, the Liberals must become a “well-run, transparent, participatory party”. I ask Rae if he thinks the drubbing that the Liberals received in the last election was related in any way to the unpopularity of Liberal provincial governments in B.C., Ontario, and Quebec. He dismisses this, saying Canadians know the differences between federal and provincial parties.
“We have to take responsibility for the outcome of any election,” he says.
At the same time, Rae notes that the Conservatives have become “permanent campaigners”, which represents a change in Canadian politics. He also says that the Conservatives identify politics in a “very negative and bumper-sticker way”.
“One of the things that party members are saying is they want us to fight back—fight back quickly, and fight back effectively,” Rae comments. “They don’t want us to accept whatever definition is given to us by the other side.”
That includes not making the mistake of thinking that nobody will believe what the other guys are saying about the Liberals.
Meanwhile, he warns of a secret agenda by the Conservatives to crack down on immigration. “[Citizenship and Immigration Minister] Jason Kenney is conducting a quiet consultation this summer, even though he’s not telling anybody about it,” Rae states. “They’re doing a consultation on immigration, immigration policy, and immigration numbers.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the Liberal party is its lack of support among lower- and middle-income Canadians, who drifted in large numbers over to the NDP in the last election. Rae admits that the B.C. NDP has a “very strong base” in this province, which must be respected.
At the same time, Rae notes that the social and economic trends are having an impact on organized labour, which is a close ally of the NDP. Nowadays, he suggests that the labour movement is “focused substantially on the public sector”.
“I think there are serious issues around the self-interest of public-sector unions,” Rae says.
He suggests that the Liberals can attract broad support by focusing on the challenges facing an aging population, including helping families with the cost of drugs and the cost of home care.
When asked what he would say to those who would like the Liberals, NDP, and Greens to unite to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, he responds that there doesn’t appear to be any interest in the other parties to change the political landscape. He notes that the NDP's constitution defines it as “socialist” and says the Greens' origins were linked to environmental issues.
“The Liberal party is a broad-based, progressive-centrist party that has historically been, you know, different than those two other parties,” Rae claims. “I don’t think anybody can predict exactly what the future will bring, but it [a merger] certainly isn’t on my plate now.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.