Bob Rae has 646 days to fix the Liberal party

The interim leader must be rousing, but leave room for the real leader to wow them in 2013

The temp

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

There’s no how-to guide for the renovation job Bob Rae has taken on. As interim Liberal leader, Rae has nearly two years to try to rebuild the once-dominant federal party before his permanent replacement is chosen in a spring 2013 convention, and Rae is being called on to do much more than merely serve as a placeholder. Skeptics doubt even this skilled and battle-scarred veteran can turn around a party that sank steadily through four national campaigns to post its worst-ever third-place finish in the May 2 election. But Rae sees brute necessity as his ally. “It takes a crisis to make change happen,” he told Maclean’s. “Everything I’ve seen in the public and private sector tells me that people make changes when they have to, and right now we have to.”

With the House returning for its fall session this week, Rae is bound to be rated to a great degree on how much question period attention he draws. Widely acknowledged as one of the best orators in Parliament, he’s expected to more than hold his own. Yet he vows not to be “eaten up by the 24-7 news cycle.” Instead, he’s concentrating more on hauling the creaky Liberal machine into the current era. Among other challenges, that means emulating the organizational efficiency Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists on for the Tories and that the late Jack Layton ushered in for the New Democrats. Unlike its more centralized rivals, the Liberal party is still largely run as an unwieldy federation of provincial and territorial party associations. “We do need a more unified approach,” Rae says.

The chance to make that key reform will come next January at a party convention in Ottawa. Among those urging Liberals to change their ways, few know the problems better than Steven MacKinnon, a failed candidate from the spring election, who lost a Quebec riding to the NDP’s “Orange Crush.” As national director of the party from 2003 to 2006, MacKinnon helped usher in reforms that gave the national Liberal machine control over membership and fundraising. However, provincial and territorial wings kept their hold over field organization and policy development. “No other party is hobbled by that,” MacKinnon says. “A radical streamlining is required.” Perhaps surprisingly, key Liberal insiders don’t see any pressing need for an overhaul of their fundraising apparatus. Even though they lag far behind the Tories when it comes to pulling in donations, Liberal officials say the U.S.-designed computer system they introduced in 2009 is up to the job. Improving its performance requires patiently collecting the data on Liberal members and donors that the system is designed to manage. “We’re just scratching the surface of how effective it can be,” says one senior party official. In fact, they need a lot of scratch: to replace the public subsidy to parties, which the Harper government is phasing out over the next four years, the Liberals must more than double the $6.6 million they raised in contributions last year. Rae stresses that no matter how up-to-date the party’s technology for reaching out to its supporters, fundraising will only ramp up when backers are inspired by ideas. “Money follows passion,” he says.

Generating that passion as a temp, though, won’t be easy. Rae must be rousing, yet leave ample room for the next real leader to craft the 2015 election platform. And he’s up against a Prime Minister consolidating power after a resounding victory, and an NDP inspired by a beloved leader’s death and engaged by a leadership race. Then again, Rae is no stranger to adversity. He served a rocky term as Ontario’s first NDP premier, in hard economic times, from 1990 to 1995. After losing that year’s provincial election badly, he steadily remade his reputation outside politics, advising troubled countries like Sri Lanka, promoting Canadian lumber interests in trade friction with the U.S., and heading a probe of the 1985 Air India bombing. Returning to politics in 2006 to try for the Liberal leadership, he lost out first to Stéphane Dion and then to his lifelong friend and rival Michael Ignatieff.

Now, he’s left to salvage something from their failures. He’ll have at least 646 days to try, 100 days longer than the previous longest-serving federal interim leader, Richard Hanson, who was acting Conservative leader in 1940-41, between Robert Manion and Arthur Meighen.

As he tries to modernize and unify the party for the next leader, Rae can’t neglect its message. He expects worries about an economic downturn to dominate this fall, and the Liberals are already calling for Harper to delay planned spending cuts of $4 billion a year until the outlook improves. Looking ahead, with Ottawa’s financing deal with the provinces for health set to expire in 2014, Rae sees a strategic opening for Liberals. “I think we have to move toward a national approach on home care and access to pharmaceuticals,” he says. But pollster Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, doubts many voters will be open to being won over any time soon, no matter what issue is being debated. “Really, federal politics is on hold,” Graves says, “as the Conservatives complete their term with an almost unprecedented grip on all levers of power.”

As long as the Tories look so dominant, talk of uniting the left is sure to persist as a distraction from Rae’s work. His case against Liberals pursuing marriage with the NDP is less that the parties are incompatible than that they’re just not very interested, and most of the chatter is from outsiders. Liberal MPs rarely raise the idea, he says, and he doesn’t hear New Democrats talking much about it either. “Sometimes issues are in front of you,” he shrugs, “and sometimes issues are not in front of you.” For now, disunity within the branches of his own humbled party is the problem at hand. “The merger I have to carry out,” he says, “is within the Liberal party.”

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