Bob Rae will be a serious contender to lead the Liberals

Since being defeated as Ontario premier, Rae has moved to the solid political centre

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 19, 2006

There is an event known as the Public Policy Forum annual dinner where national leadership aspirations go to die. It is a very discerning audience, the country's business and political class, in a town without pity, Toronto. Frank McKenna and Ralph Klein famously bombed there.

Two weeks ago, Bob Rae knocked 'em dead with a standup performance that was by turns thoughtful and witty. Bob Rae as the candidate of Bay St. for the Liberal leadership?

Isn't he the guy who, as NDP premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995, ran up $60 billion in new debt? Wasn't Ontario so strapped for cash on his watch that he gave public servants days off so he wouldn't have to pay them? Rae Days, they were called. Wasn't Queen's Park known as the Pink Palace?

That's the guy. And furthermore, what's an NDPer doing running for the Liberal leadership? Well, he's not in the NDP, and hasn't been for years. He found the Ontario NDP not only rigidly doctrinaire, but somewhat clueless to the historical fact that they got elected only because of him.

The tipping point was when Svend Robinson of the far-left federal NDP caucus called Israel a terrorist state. That was too much for Rae, a staunch supporter of Israel, though a lively and constructive critic of its government.

Everything Rae has done in the decade since his defeat has moved him away from the loony left and closer to the centre of Canada's public policy spectrum.

First, he joined a big commercial law firm, Davies Ward Phillips Vineberg. It doesn't get more Bay St. than that. Then he kept active in public policy issues by chairing the Forum of Federations, an international organization advocating federalist solutions, especially in ethnically divided countries. He's coming to the end of his term as non-executive chairperson of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Montreal-based think tank. He's done a report for the Ontario government on higher education, and another for the federal government on the Air India disaster. He's been to Iraq, at the invitation of the interim government, and advised it on political reconstruction.

In other words, he isn't Premier Bob anymore. He's just Bob Rae, public citizen. He has successfully reinvented himself, has interesting things to say, and wants to be leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

It won't be easy. He'll be running against expatriate professor Michael Ignatieff, his oldest and perhaps closest friend. Friendships have a way of becoming casualties of leadership races, especially when your new opponent is your former best friend. "Michael thinks Bob is crashing his gig," says one mutual friend, "Bob thinks Michael has been out of the country for the last 30 years. They're both right."

There's an important faction of the Liberal Party, including the entire Ignatieff clan, which regards Rae as an unwelcome interloper. Rae occupies a lot of Toronto support, including money, which Ignatieff thought he had locked up. He also crowds Ignatieff for support in the Trudeau-Chretien wing of the party, the ones who are always asking who will speak for Canada.

Then there's all the baggage from his reign of error at Queen's Park. Rae needs to take the hit about his mismanagement of Ontario's books, without making lame excuses about governing through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. He's got his mind around the first part, but can't seem to get with the second part. He's in a yes-but place when he needs to get to a no-excuses place.

Yet he will automatically join the top tier of candidates who will survive the winnowing out and be there on the floor of the convention in Montreal in December.

He meets the three basic tests of any serious leadership campaign - money, organization and ideas.

The leadership camps are all constrained by new party rules that effectively set campaign spending at $2.6 million per candidate, none of it coming from corporations as it used to. Beyond that, money will not be a problem for Rae. Nor will organization.

It starts with his brother John, the Power Corporation executive who organized two leadership campaigns and three national elections for Jean Chretien. It includes Chretien's long-time adviser Eddie Goldenberg, now practising law in Ottawa. Apart from everything else they bring to the table, these two can introduce Rae to everyone in the room.

Quebec? He's fully bilingual, was a strong supporter of Meech Lake and Charlottetown and the last premier of Ontario who understood its role as the honest broker of confederation.

As for ideas, there's no shortage of them in the intellectual capital that Rae has accumulated over the last decade. He's also a compelling public performer. He might not win, but his candidacy makes it a much better show.

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