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Sunday, May 14, 2006

My journey to Bob Rae

Ok, so I should have made this post earlier this week, as promised. But as you can imagine, my first week in Toronto has been extremely busy. I hope you understand...

Many of my friends have asked me, sometimes incredulously, about my reasons for endorsing Bob Rae for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. I keep on hearing the same arguments: He spent his entire life attacking the Liberal Party. Ontario Liberals have fought against him for years. He was a disaster as Premier. Unelectable in Ontario. Only joined the party a month ago. Not dedicated to our "values". An opportunist. A throwback to the past. An old man, involved in the old fights over the old issues. Baggage, baggage, baggage.

So why Bob Rae? Here's the story.

The first leadership contender to contact me was Scott Brison. He called me on my cell phone back in early March. We spoke for about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. Our conversation dealt with everything from engaging youth in politics to rural issues, from regional economic development in Northern Ontario to being a gay public figure. I was very impressed with his answers. I also had the chance to ask him a few questions in French. While his French was relatively weak (especially his vocabulary and verb conjugation), I could tell he had improved markedly over what I had seen in the past. Notwithstanding this article, I'm convinced he'll be able to achieve enough proficiency in his second language between now and the next election.

I liked Scott then, and I continue to like him today. As I've said in the past, I think he's a passionate, experienced politician with a lot of enthusiasm for the intricacies of public policy. I generally like his economics and support him 100% on social issues. On a personal level, he's infectiously gregarious and takes the time to learn names (a golden quality in politics). His candidacy also inspires an almost crazed devotion, especially among youth. I told Scott I'd be pleased to help him out. I talked up his candidacy to fellow young Liberals across the province, as well as some of the established (read: not-so-young) Liberals in my area.

My enthusiasm for Scott dampened considerably a few days later as the email over the income trust issue became public. The email itself, as he admits, was a clumsy lapse in judgment. It wasn't worthy of the attention it got and definitely was not criminal. My concern was with his handling of the issue. When approached by the media, he chose to be less than forthright. He chose to deny any knowledge of an email even when he knew that it had been subject to investigation.

Do I think Scott can rebound from this mistake? Six months is a long time in politics, and so I'd say yeah, probably. I certainly hope so, because on policies and personality alone, I think he'd make a terrific leader. I do, however, question the political judgment of a person whose first inclination, when confronted about a potential issue, is to be dishonest. I hope Scott has learned from his mistake, and wish him the best of luck. If he wins, I'd support him enthusiastically.

Another candidate who sparked my interest early on was Gerard Kennedy. I was impressed by his resume: Successful Education Minister in Ontario, director of two food banks before his 30th birthday, pan-Canadian roots, youthful, energetic, bilingual, beloved by the teachers, untainted by scandal, virtually no political baggage, yadda yadda yadda. A few personal friends jumped on board early on. Some influential people in my riding association are also supportive, and lobbyied me heavily on his behalf over the past few weeks.

Going into the LPCO AGM last weekend, I was leaning heavily towards supporting Kennedy. To me, he was (and probably still is) the best compromise candidate. That is to say, he's the candidate you can bring yourself to support, because the person you really like (in my case, Brison or Rae) has too much of the ever-feared "baggage". I was offered the chance to help out with his Northern Ontario campaign. I was initially receptive to this idea, subject to a few conditions, one of which was the opportunity to meet the man himself.

I got this opportunity Saturday afternoon at LPCO, during the Volunteer of the Year luncheon. I sat at the same table as Gerard. Generally, I found him to be a very nice person. A little bit shy at first, not terribly engaging (he spent most of the lunch speaking to the one person to his left, rather than working the table) but overall a warm guy. Based on his speech the night before, I had some doubts about the quality of his French. The room was loud, though, so I wasn't sure. Thus, we chatted a few minutes in French, just to see if he's as good as his handlers claim he is. He is not. I had no trouble understanding him, but was somewhat surprised at his hesitancy and limited vocabulary. After lunch, I left feeling grateful for having had the opportunity to meet the man, but thoroughly unfulfilled from a "I want to support this guy" standpoint.

I think Kennedy's biggest problem, both with the French issue and with his entire campaign, is that he's been built up to be so much more than he really is. He really isn't as charismatic as some people claim. In fact, most people felt his announcement speech was underwhelming, as was his address on the Friday night. His French is far weaker than advertised. And despite having roots all over Canada, I have serious doubts about his knowledge and understanding of the complexities of this country.

From a policy perspective, I've increasingly found a certain superficiality about him. He seems to lack depth. "Canada should be the world's first international country." "We need a new Liberal value of enterprise." At first, I thought the latter meant a more business-friendly approach to governance, particularly given his left-wing credentials. I thought he was talking about corporate tax cuts, for example, to spur investment across the country. Now I'm not so sure. I guess his slogans are subject to interpretation, which is not a good thing. So I ask: What does these statements really mean? Does anybody know?

I'm not comfortable with a campaign based more on slogans than real policy. There's just too much ambiguity about Gerard Kennedy, and that's why I couldn't bring myself to support him. I still like Kennedy, and I still think he has time to flesh out his ideas and improve his second-language skills. I expect him to be a formidable candidate with a lot of support leading into the convention. Again, if he wins, I'd support him enthusiastically.

OK, so why Bob Rae? I didn't start out as a Rae supporter. As you can read here, here and here, I admire the man a lot, but was never quite ready to support him outright, until now. The biggest things for me were his announcement speech at the end of April and his address to the LPCO delegates last Friday.

His announcement speech showed his detailed understanding of Canada and Canadians. He is easily the most experienced candidate, having governed a province and dealt with some of the constitutional issues over language, fiscal federalism and jurisdiction that plague us still. He's done extensive international work since his retirement from politics in the mid-1990s, and is widely regarded and respected as a Canadian statesman. Furthermore, we (or at least I, as you can tell) come to expect our Liberal leaders to be bilingual. He is, without a doubt, the most bilingual candidate in the race, with an effortless fluency in French. I think this fact, along with his past support for the Meech Lake and Charlottetown deals, will go a long way to bridging our gaps in Quebec.

The biggest knock against Bob Rae is his perceived unelectability in Ontario. Setting aside the fact that I've seen a poll which shows 50% of Ontarians view Bob positively or very positively, I think another important measure of his potential support would be the reaction of the LPCO delegates. When it was his turn to speak on Friday night, he received friendly, but not enthusiastic, applause. In fact, I'd say roughly 20% of the convention showed some sort of negative reaction (booing, etc.). By the time his three minutes were up, he had the crowd cheering in what was easily the most positive reaction of the night. People particularly loved his talk on the Kelowna Accord. He really is a charismatic man, a great orator who is eloquent to the point of (almost) being Clintonesque. He knows how to balance humility with strength. He often tells jokes about his troubled term as Premier before insisting, without hesitation, that he accomplished some good things in his five years in power. He is strong, he is unrelenting, he is passionate, but he is also deferential and humble when need be. After his speech, I turned to a friend of mine and said: "Could you imagine six months ago, sitting at a Liberal convention with Bob Rae as a speaker, and hearing this kind of positive reaction?" "No," she said as she applauded profusely, "but I can now."

I heard a lot of people at the AGM with similar comments. Liberals who would never have considered Bob Rae are now looking at him very positively. These are people who fought tough campaigns against him throughout the 80s and 90s. People who were crushed by his win in the 1990 election, and devastated that they were not able to replace him in 1995. There was, and still is, a lot of animosity towards Bob Rae in the Liberal Party. The reasons for this are complex and have a lot to do with pride, history and ego. But if Bob Rae can convince die-hard Liberals to support him, I'm sure he can do the same for Ontarians and Canadians.

My journey to Bob Rae wasn't easy. I'm going to get a lot of heat for my choice, particularly back home in Sudbury, where the old Liberal/NDP battles left quite a few wounds. But I'm convinced I've made the right choice. I'm convinced Bob Rae is the best person to lead the Liberal Party of Canada and the country as a whole. He is progressive, he is pragmatic, he is experienced. He shares my liberal values (and Liberal values, too). He knows what mistakes look like because he's made them. He understands Canada and its diversity more than any other candidate. And quite frankly, he's the only contender I can see as Prime Minister, not two or four or six or eight years from now, but tomorrow. He has a vision for a united and proud Canada, with strong national institutions and an active federal government. He's prepared to contrast this vision with the Conservative dream of a disjointed, weakened federation with no sense of national purpose. Bob Rae is ready for this fight, and so am I. Let's get on with it.