The Liberal Party of Canada unanimously elected Robert Rae to be their new leader yesterday, formally concluding the sad and failed reign of Michael Ignatieff.
As was the case with Iggy’s uncontested coronation in December of 2008, Rae’s automatic ascension was the decision of the party’s parliamentary caucus, who, in conclave-like fashion, have come to believe that all Liberal leaders must be installed with as much quiet unanimity as possible, rather than a lot of messy debate. Rae finished third place in the party’s 2006 leadership election — their last genuinely competitive one — and was thus understood to deserve the top job by virtue of royal succession, considering that candidates number one (Stephane Dion) and two (Ignatieff) had already fallen.
Again like Ignatieff, for now Rae only holds the leadership role with an “acting” suffix, but has nevertheless stated a preference to remain in office for at lest a couple of years — though his precise future intentions remain fairly ambiguous. A formal convention of the Liberal Party is scheduled to take place next month, at which point the party constitution is expected to be changed in all sorts of ways that could potentially keep Rae in power for quite a while, and overturn any stipulations that the acting leader can’t ever become “full” leader, and so on. But for the time being, at least, Rae’s the man.
The entirely uncontroversial rise of Bob Rae to the leadership of Canada’s once most powerful political party has been a rather bizarre phenomenon, considering that the man is, by all measurable standards, one of Canada’s least accomplished and, indeed, most disgraced political figures of recent decades. His story has been one political pundits recite while shaking their heads.
Rae came from an old-time establishment Ottawa family, with his father serving as Pierre Trudeau’s UN ambassador and his brother an executive in the aptly-named Power Corporation, Canada’s equivalent of the Bilderberg Group. Expected to go on to similarly great things, in 1978 30-year-old Robert was elected to the House of Commons, representing the NDP. In many ways, this brief stint as a third-party backbencher would represent the most distinguished phase of his political career.
Four short years later, Rae resigned from parliament to seek the leadership of the Ontario NDP, a party that, at the time, seemed no more bound for the winner’s circle than its federal counterpart. Yet after leading his party to two back-to-back electoral defeats, an odd thing happened. In the 1990 provincial election, he actually won. The victory was one of the most unanticipated flukes in Canadian political history, and exposed the weird outcomes that can occur in a strong three-party system with a plurality-based electoral regime. Despite only winning 37% of the popular vote, the vote splitting between the Tories and Liberals was severe enough to give Rae’s party a healthy majority of seats in the Ontario legislature, a victory that even shocked him.
Abruptly handed power they didn’t seriously anticipate gaining, Rae’s single-term NDP administration did nothing to disprove the idea that they weren’t ready for prime time. In a province crippled by a worsening recession, a sizable deficit, growing debt, some of the highest tax rates in Canada, and a faltering, uncompetitive industrial sector, Rae’s government adhered dogmatically to a hardline socialist agenda that paid little heed to the realities of the time. Spending on social programs was cranked up, welfare was made more generous and easy (over 10% of the Ontario population had joined by the end of Rae’s term), public sector salaries were hiked, and all sorts of government-run make-work initiatives were introduced. The province could afford precisely none of this, and Ontario’s debt and deficit predictably ballooned. In just five years, Rae had racked up twice as much public debt as all previous Ontario premiers combined. Belatedly, his government would try to balance things out by forcing the province’s overpaid public employees to take mandatory (and made-up) unpaid holidays, though these “Rae Days,” as they were soon known, quickly became a despised symbol of the grasping incompetence of his leadership.
Rae has since attempted to defend his record by claiming he was fairly “distracted” as premier, though the object of his wandering attention was hardly more worthwhile. Always more obsessed with federal politics than provincial, Rae was one of the leading architects of Brian Mulroney’s Charlottetown Accord, an overly-ambitious effort to rewrite key portions of the Canadian constitution that ended up spawning one of the most aggressive populist backlashes Canadian politics had ever seen. The package of Quebec-friendly amendments and half-assed parliamentary reforms were rejected by strong majorities in almost every province they were put to referendum, and helped unleash a tumultuous new era of regional polarization across the country.
Rae himself was predictably defeated in Ontario’s 1995 provincial election, and his NDP fell from first to third place, never regaining power since. Whatever “legacy” he was said to have left behind was quickly undone by the new premier, Michael Harris, who came from the hard-right of the Ontario Conservatives, yet seemed downright moderate in the context of Rae’s dramatic push to the left.
Following his loss and resignation, Rae vanished from the political scene for a decade, only to declare in 2006 that he had finally seen the light, and was now ready to become a member of the Liberals. It was a fairly rich line coming from a man who had always been one of the NDP’s more doctrinaire members, openly and aggressively socialist in his rhetoric and ideas (as you can see from the quote above), even at a time when socialism was rapidly falling out of fashion. Yet, for whatever reason, this background was cheerfully forgotten by a Liberal Party that was even then, trying desperately to find new sources of energy and enthusiasm, and Rae finished a respectable third in the ensuing leadership race to succeed the recently-defeated Paul Martin.
Rae’s emergence as one of the most prided goslings of the Liberal establishment, despite his obviously unimpressive and ideologically incorrect political background, has never been sufficiently justified, other than through a sort of anti-NDP, neener-neener schadenfreude. He remains a widely-despised figure in Ontario — the Liberals’ traditional base — to this day, and his loyalty to his new party continues to be suspect. In a recent Macleans’ interview, Rae seemed to imply that he still envisions the Liberals being a social democratic party — just a more competent one than the NDP. It’s for this reason that some more conservative members of the party fear Mr. Rae harbors a hidden merger agenda with the New Democrats, and why the Liberal executive committee, in turn, took the rather heavy-handed approach of explicitly banning their new leader from entering into such negotiations during his term.
There are, in short, just so, so many things bafflingly wrong with Rae’s appointment, optically, logically, strategically, and philosophically, it’s almost impossible to fathom why the decision was made, especially in the context of a badly wounded party desperate to rebuild its failing brand. It seems to me a classic “groupthink” case study; a terrible decision approved unanimously simply because everyone involved in the process had grown desensitized to the outcome through over-exposure.
I’m not sure how much more groupthink this party can survive.