3 min

Bob Rae’s exit will yank Liberals to the right

Progressives rallied around flawed candidate


The left wing of the Liberal Party was dealt a blow Dec 9 by the departure of Bob Rae from the Liberal leadership race. Rae, a polarizing presence in the contest, was hardly an ideal candidate for lefties, especially gay lefties, but he represented the last holdout for a party shifting to the right.

Some in the party were undoubtedly spooked by the spectre of a left-leaning former NDP premier taking the helm. It would have been a shock to a party that’s been drifting — toward fiscal conservativism, cozying up to law-and-order types and abandoning social programs — for the last 25 years, under Turner, Chretien, then finally Martin.

The disastrous election results of Stephane Dion, a left-of-centre leader with links to the environmental movement, were quickly followed by calls that the party shift to the right. It now appears to be their game plan.

In the last two weeks, the push-and-pull of the Liberal factions were laid bare in the face of a Liberal-NDP accord signed Dec 1.

Lefty Liberals, who can scarcely stomach the idea of another term of Stephen Harper in office, rejoice at the plan. The bounty is double, since Harper would be replaced by a coalition whose policy accord is full of goodies for manufacturing, the environment and Quebec (see their policy platform here.)

The more conservative faction of the Libs are less scared by a second Harper term. Instead, they’ve been utterly aghast at the idea of working with New Democrats on anything — they see the NDP not just as political foes but far-left socialists, separated from the Liberals by an ideological gulf a kilometre wide.

So, the reactions of Rae and leadership rival Michael Ignatieff were hardly surprising. Rae, buoyed by his supporters, became the short-lived defender of the coalition. Ignatieff expressed reservations, saying that he’s willing to follow through only “if necessary.”

Now, Ignatieff appears to have cinched the leadership. There’s an irony here. The Liberals are in a hurry to install a new leader so they can oppose Harper’s speech from the throne and January budget. However, they’ve selected a guy who’s likely going to rubber stamp the government’s agenda — if they make some concessions — in January.

So, the outlook for January is Harper or Harper-lite.

Rae would have put the boots to Harper — and progressives would have applauded. But if Rae had been chosen leader, we still would have had lots to gripe about. Rae, who represents the gaybourhood riding of Toronto Centre, broke his promise on spousal rights for gay couples while premier of Ontario in the early 1990s. It was a dramatic failure that galvanized anti-Rae sentiment among the provinces’ gays and lesbians.

Among straight Ontarians, Rae is known for his unsteady hand during and following the 1990-1991 recession, which many thought would be his Achilles heel during an election.

Even before the Liberal leadership decided to opt for an abbreviated consultation with the party’s grassroots, it appeared that Ignatieff had the bid locked up. But Rae’s presence in the race was an important moderating influence for his chief rival.

Indeed, public debates between Iggy and Rae would have pushed the Ignatieff camp further to the left on the economy, social programs and minority issues.

Had Rae been named the next leader of the Liberal Party in Dec or Jan, he pledged to proceed with plans for a coalition. It would have been an uphill battle. He would have again found himself on the wrong side of unflattering public opinion polls, this time about the coalition.

It would have required an extensive public-relations campaign to shore up support among Canadians. Could he have done it? It’s hard to tell. But with Iggy at the helm of the party, it’s almost certain that the PR campaign can only limp along. His halfhearted “maybe” will make it hard for Liberals to articulate their message, especially through the haze of Conservative attack ads.

And so, with mixed feelings, Canadians will put their visions of a Prime Minister Bob Rae to bed tonight. For progressives — even ones with strong reservations about Rae — it has not be been a good day for politics.