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July 19, 2012

Rae Bows Out

Reuel S. Amdur

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Bob Stanfield has been called the greatest prime minister Canada never had. Some are now wanting to put Bob Rae's name into competition for the title. Well, maybe, maybe not. The impulse for hagiography comes from Rae's declaration that he will not be a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party, of which he is now interim leader. But what is his legacy? There is little question that he is one of the best, if not the best, orator in Parliament.

He led the Ontario NDP to a totally unexpected victory in 1990.  Those of us on the left thought that we had died and gone to heaven.  Far be it from what followed.  Even at the start there were hints about who might matter with the Rae government and who might not.

Here I introduce a bit of personal history.  At the time I was actively involved in advocacy work with the Ontario Association of Social Workers, and when the election results were known I contacted the office of one of the powerful members of Rae’s coterie, Ross McClellan, himself a social worker.  I knew him slightly.  The Association wanted to meet with him to talk about welfare policy.  There was no return phone call.

Well, there was a jubilant celebration of the NDP victory at Queen’s Park, so I joined the festivities in hopes that I might find him there.  In that massive swirling mob, I actually found him.  He was prancing about with a small child sitting on his shoulders.  I told him that I had left the message for him and asked for a response.  He apologized, explaining that things were extremely busy, but he would respond soon.  Make that never.

Meeting with social workers to talk about the needs of the poor just did not cut it.  It was not as if the request for a meeting came from someone important, like the Ontario Medical Association or some big corporation.  Perhaps if he and his associates had met with us, some of the complex and punitive measures the NDP government adopted would have been avoided.  Perhaps not.

Back after the 1985 election, when David Peterson’s Liberals took power in a minority government propped up by the NDP, McClellan and the NDP got Peterson to appoint a commission to review social assistance.  One of the most important recommendations that came out of the exercise was the need for a massive reduction in the complexity.  Once in power, the NDP increased complexity astronomically.  As an example of one of their nasty regulations was one punishing sponsored immigrants if the sponsor failed to pay up, a reduction of $50 a month off the already paltry rate.  Even if the sponsor had left Canada the deduction still applied.  There was also a complex regulation about what a recipient could keep from any earnings, dependent among other things upon how long it had been since he had been on assistance before. 

The Rae government was a litany of abandoned hopes.  Rae gave in to the insurance industry, backing down on implementing a provincial auto insurance program.  His government changed its mind on delisting drugs from the drug benefit formulary under threats of job loss by threatened plant closing.  It gave physicians a major tax benefit by allowing them to incorporate.  It opened the door for American interests to run a casino in Windsor, in spite of concerns about organized criminal influence and about the dangers of gambling addiction. 

Then there was the biggie—the so-called social contract imposed on public employees to cut the provincial deficit and debt during the recession in the 1990’s.  The government lost its nerve in the Keynesian enterprise of pump-priming, even while provincial interest payments on the debt were at a lower rate than Ottawa’s and than other provinces’.  It proceeded in a ham-fisted way to brush aside union contracts.  The fashion in which this was done embittered labor-NDP relations across the country.

This is not a pretty picture, but Bob Rae says he learned from his experience in Ontario.  What is unclear is just what it was that he learned.  He was on the side of the angels in trying to resolve ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, and he cannot be blamed for the failure.

Rae came close to becoming prime minister.  Instead of Rae, the Liberals opted for Michael Ignatieff, and when the plan for a coalition to keep Harper out was agreed upon, Ignatieff, Canada’s Hamlet, scuttled the deal.  Rae would have run with it.  He would have become prime minister.

What would Canada have looked like under Prime Minster Bob Rae?  Undoubtedly some of Harper’s reckless vandalism would have been avoided—the census fiasco, the attack on archives and museums, elimination of tobacco cessation programs for Aboriginals, and so on.  At the level of defense and foreign policy, matters might be less rosy.  It was Rae’s doing that Harper was able to extend Canada’s military role in Afghanistan till 2014.  As prime minister would he try to give us both guns and butter?  What about billions for fighter jets?

According to the Toronto Star’s Bob Hepburn, Rae decided to call it quits when he looked at the timeline to a possible Liberal victory in Ottawa with him as leader.  He was looking at 2023 at the earliest, when he would be 75. 

So what legacy does he leave Ontario?  His biographer Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom points out that in Saskatchewan the NDP left us all with medicare.  In British Columbia, it gave the public a provincial auto insurance program.   In Ontario?

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