Bob Rae needs to decide if the Liberal leadership is worth seeking

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bob Rae has a decision to make Ė to run or not to run for the Liberal leadership.

That is the question, in its simplest Shakespearean frame. Rae must decide by the end of the parliamentary session next week whether to seek the party leadership on a permanent basis, or remain as interim leader until the Liberal convention in early 2013.

The partyís emissaries have made it clear to Rae that he canít undertake the leaderís summer tour as a leadership candidate, as it would give him an unfair advantage over other candidates. One thing about the barbecue circuit Ė thereís no shortage of photo- ops with the party faithful.

And there are lots of names being dropped Ė Marc Garneau, Scott Brison, Dominic Leblanc, David McGuinty, even Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay, both defeated in their Toronto ridings last year, but both highly visible as talking heads on TV news channels. Oh, and Justin Trudeau.

But who are we kidding? It really comes down to Rae and Trudeau, neither of whom has made a final decision about running and both of whom earlier ruled themselves out of the race Ė Rae as a condition of being named interim leader, and Trudeau to spend more time with his young family. But then as Robert Bourassa used to say, a week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity.

Itís Rae who must make his mind up first.

On the basis of his performance in the House of Commons, the leadership ought to be a lock for him. Even with the limited time in question period available to the leader of the third party in the House, Rae stands out from the crowd, among both the Liberals and NDP official opposition. His questions are always pertinent. He has a sense of humour, including self-deprecating humour. And out on the campaign trail, Rae can bring a crowd to its feet with eloquent, coherent, rousing, unscripted speeches.

Thereís no question, based on form, that heís the best in the prospective Liberal field. Looking behind him in the House, itís evident how thin the Liberals are in terms of leadership material.

And yet, this is not a slam dunk. Far from it.

Rae will be 64 in August, and 67 by the time of the next election in 2015. In a best-case scenario, he might get the Liberals back to Stornoway and official opposition in one election. But even the most optimistic Liberals acknowledge it will probably take them at least two elections to return to government from where they are now, reduced to a rump of 35 seats. That would make Rae at least 71 by the time he moved into 24 Sussex Drive.

Is Rae prepared to lead the party for one election, out of the wilderness of third-party status, but not to the promised land of power? Is the leadership, on those terms, a prize worth seeking, let alone winning?

The Liberals find themselves in a bad place, squeezed between Stephen Harper and the Conservatives on the right, and Tom Mulcair and the NDP on the left. The challenge for the Liberals is to remain relevant, to define and defend a tenable middle ground.

And thatís just in terms of strategy and positioning, the two drivers of party policy. On the ground, in terms of candidates, organization and financing, the challenges facing the next Liberal leader are truly daunting.

Consider where the Liberals are starting from. For a century and more the Liberal dynastic power base was Ontario and Quebec, where they now find themselves reduced to 19 out of 181 seats in those two provinces. From the Manitoba border to Vancouver Island, the Liberals have only four seats out of 92. Only in the Atlantic are the Liberals competitive, with 12 out of 32 seats.

And looking at the new electoral map, there is no reason to believe Liberal prospects will be enhanced by re-distribution in the 2015 election.

The present 308-member Commons will be expanded to 338 seats, 15 of them in Ontario, six each in Alberta and British Columbia, and three in Quebec. Ontario will then have 121 seats in the new House, while the West will have 104. Nearly all of the 27 new seats west of Quebec will be in suburban belts, such as the 905 area-code region around Toronto, where voters have shifted decisively away from the Liberals to the Conservatives.

Thatís a lot of work, and a thankless task, ahead for the next Liberal leader. Itís not clear that Rae needs to take that on when heís 64. Itís equally unclear whether he can win against a grain of generational change.

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