Bob Rae: ‘You don’t always get what you want in politics …’

The interim Liberal leader talks to Aaron Wherry about bad weeks, bad moments and bouncing back

<p>Liberal leader Bob Rae rises during question period in the House of Commons Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

Liberal leader Bob Rae rises during question period in the House of Commons Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Earlier this month—the evening that Peter Van Loan got very mad at Nathan Cullen, actually—I sat down with Bob Rae. Here is an abridged and edited transcript of our conversation.

First of all, how do you look back on the last year for the Liberal party?

We started with the very successful convention in January, which I think had the largest attendance of any non-leadership convention we’d ever had. We had a lot of people there, a lot of enthusiasm. And then went on from there to the creation of the supporter class. That went well. We’re now well over 40,000 and that number will grow. We’re going to have potentially the largest electorate for the selection of the new leader that we’ve ever had. Then getting the leadership underway, in terms of my decision not to run, getting other people out there running. I think that’s gone well. We’ve now got a full field of potential candidates. We’ve got others that are still weighing whether they’re going to run or not, but it’s going to be a very big field.

Broadly speaking, I have seen my job as the interim leader as initially doing everything I can to make sure the party gets the message about the need to rebuild, to take reorganization seriously and to maintain our presence in the House of Commons, to make sure that we’re there, we’re an effective team. Morale is good, people are participating and I think we’ve succeeded. I never anticipated that, with being the interim leader, you’re going to make some huge breakthrough. My view all the way through was, we’ve got to make sure we’re still in the game, that we’re present, active, relevant to the debates and the discussions and that what we have to say is respected. And I think that’s been the case. And I think the notion that the NDP had that they were just going to be able to waltz in and just ignore the Liberals, don’t have to worry about that, that’s over, I think clearly we’re still there. And we’re not just still there, but in terms of public opinion, we’re doing better, we’re more strongly placed than since the last election. And from that point of view for us, I think it’s been a positive year. It’s been a year of reconstruction.

You yourself, over the last, it seems to me, couple months, have come forward and put some policy discussions out there. Carbon pricing, the gas tax, this week with the tax credits. Do you see your role as something to put ideas on the table? To be advancing ideas?

Yeah, I think that’s part of what I think, with the reorganization underway and still working on that part of it, what I call the perspiration side, I think it would be at the speech that I gave to the caucus in September, where I sort of laid out some ideas and issues that I thought we had to deal with as a party. And I still think there are a lot. And this process is going to go on through the leadership and then beyond the leadership. We’re going to have a policy convention in 2014 … so I think with everybody’s blessing, I mean I’m not sort of giving prescriptions, saying any leader has to accept what I say, it’s not that at all. It’s a way of saying, here are some issues that we have to deal with, here’s where I think Liberals want to be.

We’ve now got online a very active policy dialogue underway, which has been part of what the party renewal process has allowed us to do. And that’s reinforcing the fact that there’s a hunger out there in the party, and I think in the country, for some other ideas and some new approaches to things.

There’s probably not a consensus on the job description for an interim party leader, but have you tried to assert yourself in the role to some extent? You don’t seem to be sitting back and letting things happen and simply kind of keeping the seat warm.

I don’t think you can. I mean, I think the situation in 2011 was too dire to do that. And I also think that the unprecedented nature of the term—I mean, an interim leadership isn’t supposed to last for two years. So if you just keep the seat warm for two years, the party risked, in my view, disappearing. I didn’t ask anybody, but I said, well, if it’s a two-year job and it involves doing the kind of restructuring that needs to be done and helping people, saying, well, here’s the direction of policy renewal that we have to get started on … there’s a very keen appetite in the caucus for policy renewal. There’s been a group of senators and MPs that meet every Monday night to talk about policy and ideas. We have MPs and senators who are coming forward with ideas and proposals and studies. You know, we just had a presentation today by Senator Watt, from northern Quebec, on arctic sovereignty which was excellent.

So there’s a lot of ideas brewing out there and I just didn’t see this as a placeholder job. I’ve never seen it that way. I think some people were saying, well, the only reason he’s doing this is because he wants to be the leader. And I certainly think it’s wrong to think that way because you can’t do a two-year job as a placeholder, in a situation that’s as dynamic as our current political situation. Or when you have a result where you’re a definite third in 2011, you risk falling even further behind unless you’re prepared to sort of figure out how to change that dynamic a bit. And I hope I’ve helped to do that.

Have you had any moments of regret over the decision not to run for the permanent leadership?

Not really. I mean, it was not easy for me. But I felt a couple of things. One is the executive, God bless them, had a particular view of how the job should be done and the fact that you couldn’t run for permanent leader and it was going to be a two-year job. And I felt that was a very particular prescription. That if you didn’t deal with it in a certain way it could be disastrous. The second thing I felt was that, for me personally, having said that I wouldn’t run, there would have to be an almost extraordinary set of circumstances that would say, well, okay, now I can. Other candidates wanted to run, they’ve come forward and said they want to run, they want to be a leader. In that circumstance, I think for me to have run would’ve been wrong and inappropriate. So no, I don’t have any regrets. I regret not winning in 2006, let’s put it that way. That’s the regret that I have. But that’s life. You don’t always get what you want in politics and that’s the way it goes.

Do you feel freer?

Yes. At a personal level, I feel freer. I also feel that, I’ve kind of done my bit and I’ve earned the ability and the right to sort of give candid advice to people and I think people understand that. I have no desire—politics is not a solo sport. I mean, you work as a team. And whatever happens, I’m going to continue to see it that way.

But do you feel freer to speak publicly too?

No, I mean there are limits to what you can say publicly. I think you’ve got to be respectful of the process. Leadership candidates are going to come forward. I think I can interpret policy as it’s been expressed in the past. I can try to apply that to the current situation. I can raise some issues with people as I’ve done on aboriginal issues, on mental health issues, on other stuff that I feel strongly about that the caucus has been quite happy to let me run with and go forward. Continue my interest in foreign affairs. So I’ve got a lot of interests and I keep going with those.

Speaking of teams, you have, as a New Democrat and a Liberal, probably experienced any number of election results and parliamentary situations. The recent spate of by-elections has stirred up the discussion again about cooperation and mergers and various alignments. Do you think that’s a discussion the Liberals and perhaps the New Democrats have to have, either individually or together? Or do you have to think about 2015 as going in there as distinct parties and rivals?

I think the leadership candidates have now got that issue right in front of them because one of the leadership candidates has raised it as a legitimate issue for discussion in the leadership race. So I’m sure it’ll be discussed. I don’t think it’s an issue we can discuss on our own, otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves. And I think I’ll let the new leader try to figure out to what extent there’s an appetite to do that or not.

I don’t think it’s entirely clear how things will sort of shake out or shake down in the next two years. The one thing I do feel quite strongly is that there’s a substantial majority in the public who do not want another Harper government, another Conservative government. And I think everybody else in the political system has a responsibility to think about what that means and how that result is going to be achieved, without simply blowing their own horn. But I’ll say, you know, after the last election, I mean, the NDP was in a triumphalist mode and then after Jack died and then Tom Mulcair won, Mulcair was in a triumphalist mode. So it’s hard to see how this all happens. I do think in our own ranks, I think there’s a greater sense of self confidence that people will ultimately want to turn to a non-ideological choice than an ideological choice. But, as I say, I think we all have an obligation to be respectful of those people who, well, whatever happens, I don’t want to see a Conservative government. And I think the result in Calgary Centre in particular should cause everybody to reflect on what the future might bring.

Do you worry about vote-splitting? Do you lose sleep over it? Not literally, but…

Well, I mean, I think Calgary Centre is about two things. One, I think it’s about vote-splitting and the other one, I think it’s about the need for our party to be really well-organized on the ground and to be able to identify more supporters. Because clearly we had a lot of supporters out there who didn’t get to the polls. And I think that’s something we have to do some work on.

That’s more of an organizational thing…

Yeah, that’s an organizational thing, but it’s also a, in the case of the Liberal party, it’s a very necessary change in culture. We have to be much more focused as an organization on the ground game, as we say. On how we work on the ground. I think we have to do a whole lot more in that department.

Is this still a make-or-break moment for the Liberal party?

I actually think the make-or-break moment for the Liberal party was after the last election. I think that the moment when we could have receded and just disappeared into the woodwork was after then. And I think that the fact that didn’t happen means that we’re now in a position to go forward to whatever the result may bring in 2015. And that result will be the product of a three-party race and some ridings it will be four parties.

I suspect you probably don’t want to talk about individual candidates, but given that he has had a rough couple of weeks and you have been through several leadership campaigns yourself, any words of advice for Mr. Trudeau?

No, my words of advice wouldn’t be for him only, they’d be for every candidate. And that is, the key to this business is resilience. It’s not about are you going to make a mistake? Because everybody makes mistakes. It’s about how quickly can you bounce back. It’s not about making mistakes. It’s not about having a bad week or a bad two weeks. Everybody, every government, every party has bad weeks and bad times and bad moments. Everybody says things they wish they hadn’t said. I’ve certainly said a lot of things I wish I hadn’t said. The issue is are you resilient enough to come back. Can you win back your own self confidence back? Can you get your sea legs back and get back on the game? Get back on the horse, get back on the bicycle, whatever it is. And that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to do that. That’s the nature of the beast. You can’t let the situation define who you are. And you can’t let bad moments define your existence.