Rae still haunts the NDP

Thursday, September 8, 2005

  • Bob Rae, next federal Liberal leader?

    Bob Rae, next federal Liberal leader?

When Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall first wrote the words "he haunts us still", they were referring to former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The phrase could just as easily be applied to the impact that Bob Rae has had on the NDP in Ontario.

September 6 marked the fifteenth anniversary of Rae's surprising election victory, and the only time that a New Democrat has won an election in the country's most populous province. What Rae did in office and - more importantly - what he did not do in office are constantly brought up on the doorstep and in the coffee shop (usually as an argument over why it isn't "safe" to vote NDP, even ten years later).

Whatever his flaws, I've always argued that, on balance, Bob Rae's premiership had a positive impact on the province of Ontario. The NDP's groundbreaking environmental legislation made it possible for the citizens of Walkerton to receive compensation for having consumed unsafe drinking water. Over 40,000 units of affordable housing were built between 1990 and 1995. Under the NDP, organized labour finally had something approaching a level playing field when dealing with companies. And, bringing nurse practitioners and midwives into the health care system not only saved money, but also provided Ontarians with a better range of health care options. Rae doesn't get enough credit for any of these (or other) accomplishments.

Of course, being followed as Premier by Mike Harris could make just about anyone look like a shining progressive (hell, even Dalton McGuinty looks somewhat progressive when held up against Mike Harris and Ernie Eves). But, the reality is Rae did a lot of positive things for the province during his nearly five years in office. The contrast between his approach to governing and that of his successor was made immediately apparent on September 6, 1995, the fifth anniversary of his election. That day, the Ontario Provincial Police acted on political direction to remove unarmed protesters from Ipperwash Provincial Park, killing Dudley George in the process.

During the time that Rae was Premier, there was a lot of pressure within the NDP to refrain from open criticism. As one who consistently resisted that pressure and criticized Rae whenever I thought it was necessary, I now find myself more prone to defending his government than many of those who once tried to keep me quiet. Within the NDP, Rae is the proverbial elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about (and hopes that voters won't talk about either).

When a race was held to succeed Rae, the only real issue in that race was how the party should deal with the legacy of the Rae government. Peter Kormos argued that we should denounce virtually everything that was done in the first half of the 1990s - essentially running against our own record. While the other candidates (including Francis Lankin, whom I supported) all argued that we should build on the best of Rae's legacy and move on from there, it was the candidate among them who was seen as the farthest from Rae's inner circle - Howard Hampton - who eventually won the leadership.

The problem with Bob Rae as premier was not just that he didn't implement public auto insurance, that he allowed tuition to increase by 42 per cent, that he threw out signed collective agreements or that he introduced casino gambling to the province. It was that, in the process of doing so, he actively argued against the longstanding party policies that he was supposed to be implementing. On auto insurance, he could have talked about how regrettable it was that - due to the compensation provisions of the Free Trade Agreement - he couldn't give Ontario drivers the same kind of system that works in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Instead he told voters that the idea had never been workable.

It's not that other governments (in Ontario, or in general) have never broken a promise. It's that voters expect other governments to break their promises. They expected the NDP to be different. New Democrats expected the NDP to be different. In politics, the higher the expectations held by voters, the bigger the disappointment when they are not met.

The other thing about Rae that bedevils the NDP is what he has done since he left office. Becoming a corporate lawyer and sitting on countless corporate boards only confirmed what many New Democrats had always secretly thought about Rae (even before "the betrayals"), but he didn't leave it at that. He's let himself be used by Dalton McGuinty to push proposals for still higher tuition and by Paul Martin to deflect calls for an immediate inquiry into the botched Air India investigation. He's also done his fair of sniping from the sidelines, playing on his stature as a former NDP premier to criticize the party (even though, when pressed, he'll admit that he let his party membership lapse in 1997).

Now, Rae is again being touted as a potential federal Liberal candidate, and even as a potential federal Liberal leader. Frankly, I hope he does run as a Liberal in the next federal election (of course, I also hope he loses badly to the NDP wherever he runs). Doing so could help to finally remove him as the millstone that - fairly or unfairly - has been draped around the NDP's neck.

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