Jun 242013
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Departing Liberal leader would make a dandy Governor-General.

by Geoffrey Stevens

There are some politicians — not many, but a few — who command near-universal respect, admiration and, yes, affection, even among their opponents. Bob Rae is one of that rare species. He is resigning his seat (Toronto Centre) in the Commons, and Parliament and the Liberal party will be the poorer for his departure.

He departs with a moving van full of honours and accomplishments, yet he remains one of the might-have-beens of Canadian political history. What if Gerard Kennedy had thrown his support to him, rather than to Stéphane Dion, on the third ballot of the federal Liberal leadership convention in December, 2006?

Although fate and timing controlled much of what Bob Rae was able to achieve, they could not blunt the qualities the man brought to whatever task he set for himself in his public life.

Rae would have led the Liberals into the 2008 election against Stephen Harper and his minority Conservative government. Would he have won that election? Perhaps not, but it hard to imagine that the Liberals would have run a worse campaign with Rae than they did with Dion. As it was, Harper won a second minority in 2008.  

Back it up to 1990, when Rae, then NDP leader in Ontario, won a surprise victory, defeating David Peterson’s Liberals, to become the first (and only) NDP premier of the province. What if Ontario had not fallen into jaws of the recession of the early 1990s? There would have been no need for the much-mocked “Rae Days.” His government might have been successful; if so, Rae could have won a second term in the 1995 provincial election, and Mike Harris might never have become premier of Ontario.

Although fate and timing controlled much of what Bob Rae was able to achieve, they could not blunt the qualities the man brought to whatever task he set for himself in his public life. I covered him in Ottawa in the 1970s when, as the youthful NDP finance critic, he introduced the confidence motion that brought down Joe Clark’s minority Conservative government in 1979. A decade later, he kindly let me share his office at Massey College in Toronto while we were both writing books. More recently, I observed his commitment to students during his term as the popular chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Post-government, Rae and Jullian Porter debated “Be it resolved that Ontario needs a Bob Rae government” at Hart House, with Rae taking the negative. The debate was a hoot.

He brought — “brings,” actually, because he is not done yet — wisdom, passion and civility to everything he does, a dedication to social justice (dating to his days as an Oxford student working with squatters in London) and an abiding interest in aboriginal rights (his current preoccupation).

He brought (brings) eloquence (perhaps the best debater in Parliament), spontaneity, humour and a quite remarkable ability to multi-task without ever seeming to be too busy to listen.

Two things set him apart. One is reticence bordering on shyness, his thoughtfulness making him the antithesis of a stereotypical hail-fellow-well-met politician. The other is his wit. I recall a memorable evening years ago at Hart House in Toronto when Rae debated his friend and fellow lawyer Julian Porter, a pink Tory. At this point, Rae was out of office, his NDP government having been defeated by the Harris Conservatives. The topic of the debate was: “Be it resolved that Ontario needs a Bob Rae government.”

The twist: Porter argued the affirmative and Rae the negative, arguing that the very last thing Ontario needed then (or ever) was another Bob Rae government. It was a hoot. If anyone had been keeping score, Rae would have won easily. He told the affluent Hart House crowd of the miseries they could expect from a socialist government — higher taxes, fewer entitlements for themselves and their families, greater power for the trade unions in their companies, and so on.

So what does the future hold for Rae? For now, he will work with the First Nations of Northern Ontario. But down the road? He’s turning 65 in August and has another decade or more for public service. He could be an ambassador, a high court judge, a representative to an important international agency.

Or he could be governor general. Stranger things have happened.

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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