Interview with Bob Rae
In advance of this weekend's "extraordinary convention" of the Liberal party, I sat down this week for a chat with interim leader Bob Rae. Of course, as usual, a lot more was said than I could fit in the paper, so I thought interested folks might want to read a bit more here. Bob was in fine spirits. The actual offices for the party on the fifth floor of Centre Block are still a bit of a ghost town -- hiring of new staff, etc. will probably take place over the summer, while Rae is travelling. (And no, it won't be like last year's Liberal Express tour -- this will be much more low-key. The caucus retreat will be in Ottawa, to save money. Not beautiful Baddeck, where Liberals met last summer, when hopes were still high.)
Rae gave some glimpses of behind-the-scenes dynamics in this new Parliament, which I found interesting, especially the tension between Liberals and New Democrats. Here's what he said, when I asked if the House overall is now more "polarized," as everyone predicted when they saw the May 2 election results.
No. Partly because there’s a kind of sanctimonious overtone that I think prevents people from really being themselves and I think that’ll break down. I don’t think that’ll last forever. I think we’re already seeing it beginning to fray at the edges a little bit. And also because I think as I see it, there will be a lot of circumstances where people will want to hear from whoever is in the House and if there’s an interesting alternative third point of view, there’s another way of looking at it, then they will do so. You know, I don’t feel that … I feel quite comfortable in the House. In some ironic way, there’s lots of ironies in it, I’m sitting not far away from where I sat when I first got there…
Who's in your old seat?
Elizabeth (May, Green Party leader.) She has the seat of honour. But you know the great thing about the House of Commons is that there’s no bad seat in the House of Commons. When you’re there, you’ve got a role to play, the Speaker recognizes you and with the great benefit of television, when you stand up, if I watch CPAC coverage and I’m standing up, no one knows where I am in the House. I’m just right there…
How's the relationship between you and Layton and Harper?
I would say Jack is quite a lot cooler, more distant. But I think that’s partly a product of probably feeling that there’s some kind of competition going on, whatever. And I think there’s a certain sense…. I don’t know whether to talk about this, but the whole moving of the offices thing was just bizarre. I was moved out of an office by an NDPer whose name I won’t mention. Her office was being taken over by a Liberal. Like we were all moving around and you thought, there’s got to be an easier way to do this…
This whole civility thing is overdone… In committees, it’s always been the rule that the three parties got the first three questions, the first three sets of questions. In one committee we learned today, the NDP and Conservatives joined up to say you get the fifth question. So there’s just a lot of little games being played.
They (the NDP) want to let everybody know that they’ve arrived, so they’re going to exercise all their full rights and powers and duties. You’ve got to let them get that out of their system. … Even the little things. They wouldn’t let Elizabeth May and the four Bloc guys sit with them. We have a very tiny space (behind the curtains, in the Commons lobby). They had nowhere to sit. So I said, you sit with us, if they’re not going to let you sit with them, we’ll make space for you. So we literally rearranged the furniture, so you have your own phone, your own little place here, your own cup of coffee there, you don’t have to sit outside… It’s truly stupid, right. But these are the signs of triumphalism that never work because they always come back and bite you in the end. But I guess they have to get it out of their system.
On how it's going, generally, for the Liberal party.
Things are what they are. Things are going as well… I guess you’d say as well as can be expected under the circumstances. We took a big whack on May 2. There was a lot ... a lot of people kind of reeling from the shock. Not so much now…
We had a party last night, a reception given by the Quebec assistants in the East Block courtyard. Well-attended, good spirits. Caucus morale is very good. Caucus meetings are very productive. We’ve got the senators and the MPs working well together on issues. We’ve changed the format of caucus meetings and we’ve gone from having people up on a dais to everybody being around a table together. So it’s a very dynamic kind of meeting process and that’s been very productive. I think people are in a good mood, good humour. And a lot of jokes, a lot of people socializing, going out for dinner, seeing each other, all the little signs of how things are going in terms of morale that you pick up on.
Everybody realizes that we have to put the old battles behind us and we really have to get rid of some of that lingering kind of distrust and animosity and build a stronger feeling where everyone feels value. I think with the membership of the party, I think it’s going to take more time. With MPs you can see them, with senators, they’re part of the political process. But as we broaden it out to talk to more and more of the membership and people that we would like to be members, that we would like to be in the movement, I think it’s going to take some time.
The other thing that’s better is that the party and the parliamentary structure, the office, the people, the staff, have to work more closely together. They will simply have to work more closely together because there’s just no choice. Again, you take advantage of that to make changes. It’s painful at the beginning because some people will have to be let go, will move around. Those are always difficult changes. But once we’ve got those new structures in place, people will feel have a keener sense of where we’re going next, how we’re going to proceed.
On timing, urgency of rebuilding:
We’re about to adjourn for the summer. I keep reminding members, we have five summers before the election. So let’s pace ourselves, let’s not pretend… We’re all adjusting to the new pace of a majority government, which is that you’ve got to recognize, that this is all going to take time, that there are going to be days and even weeks when you’re not in the public eye very much…
Is it hard to be the third party? Has your past helped prepare you for this?
It’s not hard for me. I spent a lot of time out of the public eye when I was working on other issues, so I don’t mind. In a way, this is kind of like a classic restructuring job. It’s a big one, because it’s a political party and it has no parallel to a lot of things you do in the charitable world.
I did the restructuring of the Red Cross, I did the restructuring of the Toronto Symphony. A lot of it’s the same thing. You’re trying to get people working in the same direction, you’re trying to persuade everybody as to why certain changes are necessary, … and then you spend time with the reluctant people, let them vent, let them kind of get all the stuff out of their system and then you figure out how do we move on….
In each case you’re looking at organizations which have great histories and great potential but have been through difficult times. And you’ve got to say how do we restructure, how do we refocus the mission. In the case of the Red Cross, you are giving up a large part of what they used to do. There was a lot of …. There had been a lot of agony over the blood tragedy. And so when I was brought in, my job was to settle those cases and those claims and to redirect them, rather than fight them, the Red Cross’s efforts to its relief work, its international work, its work at home and I think people would most say now, if you did any poll about do you have a positive impression of the Red Cross, people would say yes, they still do.
Similarly, with the symphony, you’re trying to change, help an organization to change so that it can build on its reputation but also get people to actually come and listen to them. And again, there, it’s not about me, it’s about who do I find who will do the job that has to be done?
When asked about predictions/fears of the death of the Liberal Party.
My own thinking is that that’s not right. That .. When you actually look at the facts, say we went from, under Mr. Chretien, we went from the high 30s to the low 30s or mid-to-low 30s under Mr. Martin, then to the high 20s under Mr. Dion and then down to the final result…. Under Michael’s leadership we were usually in the high 20s or low 30s…So … What’s wrong with thinking that way is that it assumes a kind of permanence of defeat which I think is a big mistake.
I do think we’re in a very dynamic situation and if you look at the politics of Quebec right now, the politics of Ontario, you know the two biggest provinces, plus the B.C. election, which will probably be in the fall, other provinces voting in the fall, a lot of movement around, a lot of shifting, and I do think there’s a lot of open possibilities. It relly depends on how successful we are in coming together at the beginning and then really starting to rebuild at the level of the constituency and at the level of the regions, that says now we’re in a stronger position and that’s partly a function of just the mechanics of paying attention and going back to people who were there before and saying we want you back and getting new people in who haven’t been there before. But it’s also partly a question of policy. It’s about ideas, it’s about what are the ideas that you can help drive that can help to move people and help to move people to where you want to go.
Does the Liberal Party need a thinktank? Its own Fraser Institute or Manning Institute?
There’s talk of that. I mean, sure. You look at the Fraser Institute, the Manning Institute, you know the question is can we get the kind of money that would allow that kind of thing to happen. We certainly have to work much more closely with the thinkers and treat them with respect and with the policy groups that are out there. But you know the interesting thing is that even the concept of an institute or the concept of a policy conference of a Kingston or whatever people want to talk about, to me, it’s like everything has been changed by the Internet. The digital world has changed everything.
We need to become Wiki-Liberals. We need to think about how we build up the networks and participating on social media, really engaging with people. And there’s no reason why on policy we can’t get people participating much more quickly and conversations about particular items of policy and how to develop it. Even the whole idea of having resolutions is a terribly old-fashioned way of thinking… The idea that you put something down in stone and say well that’s the policy. Well what if everything changes over the next four years. What is that?