The NDP’s new Ontario champion

Linda Diebel March 1 1982

The NDP’s new Ontario champion

Linda Diebel March 1 1982

The NDP’s new Ontario champion



Linda Diebel

One evening about five years ago, two casually dressed young men attempted to gain admission to one of Toronto’s tonier restaurants. The maître d’ was prepared to relax the dress code for the first—a sweater and jeans he could handle—but he drew the line at what came next. “I am sorry sir,” he intoned in barring young Robert Rae, who refused to acknowledge that there was anything objectionable about his plaid lumber jacket, steel-toed construction boots and orange Steelworkers cap. Toronto lawyer Lenny Wise, a longtime friend of Rae’s and his dinner companion that evening, recalls that he wanted to warn the maître d’ of his folly (“You could be turning away the next premier of Ontario”) but decided instead to seek out a humbler eatery.

To the despair of family and friends, Rae is still partial to the lumberjack look, but after three years in politics he has accepted the need to please. The morning after Rae swept to a first-ballot victory at the Ontario New Democratic Party leadership convention two weeks ago,

The Toronto Sun splashed a color photo of him wearing a classic dark-blue suit and a gold Pierre Cardin buckle on his belt. If Rae is to successfully challenge 38 years of Tory rule in Ontario and convince voters that the NDP isn’t out to steal their TY sets and two-car garages, he knows he would be wise to save the construction boots for weekends.

Bob Rae has always thrived on challenge; in fact, he has yet to fail in any public endeavor. From the days he took his degree in political philosophy at Oxford’s Balliol College on a Rhodes scholarship (where he enjoyed an atmosphere in which “easy, rhetorical thinking was not encouraged, or even tolerated”), to the arduous period two years ago in which he simultaneously campaigned in the federal election (his third exposure to voters in 16 months), crammed for bar exams, courted his future wife and fought the flu, his energy

has rarely flagged. But now he faces the biggest political challenge of his 33 years. Not only must he rebuild a provincial party, debilitated by an uninspired four years under his predecessor, Michael Cassidy (acidly termed the “interregnum” by former leader Stephen Lewis), his task is also pivotal to the NDP’s national fortunes. With no seats in Quebec and a power base increasingly confined to the West, the NDP needs a solid Ontario footing to

survive as a credible national party. Rae is up against the Torys’ 70-seat majority and one of the slickest political machines in the country. As Steelworkers director David Patterson puts it, “No small responsibility.”

Bob Rae first got hooked on politics at the University of Toronto, where he was a student activist. His name popped up frequently in the campus newspaper, The Varsity, sometimes as the subject, sometimes as the author, of numerous articles. Among the latter, a review of an anthology of George Orwell’s works suggests the profound influence of that author on the 20-year-old Rae: “Ours has become the decade of the ‘credibility gap,’ of doublethink. It has become

more and more difficult to ascertain the truth in politics, more and more rare to hear it spoken by people in public places,” he wrote. Former U of T president Claude Bissell described Rae as having “a quick mind, a talent for easy public discourse and, unlike his contemporary radicals, a lively sense of humor.” Impervious to the Trudeaumania that swept the country in 1968, Rae dubbed the new prime minister “John Stuart Mill in a miniskirt.” Though not yet a full-blown New Democrat (he campaigned for Liberal Charles Caccia in Toronto-Davenport in 1968), Rae saw Trudeau’s election victory as the triumph of “medium over message, of style over substance,” and he condemned the emptiness of Trudeau Liberalism. Rae wrote in The Varsity, “We shall continue to sing and swing our way down the path to nowhere in particular, at no particular speed, for no particular reason.”

Thirteen years later, he was cribbing from his own prophecies. Last fall, as NDP finance critic (whom party leader Ed Broadbent had rapidly pinpointed as an up-andzcomer after his 1978 by-election win in Toronf to’s Broadview-Greenwood priding) Rae was on his feet |in the Commons, blasting ^Finance Minister Allan iMacEachen’s “Tinker Bell” budget. Condemning what he called fairy-tale promises, Rae mimicked Peter Pan to scarcely concealed delight on both sides of the House: “If we all get together and really believe that inflation will come down, that jobs will be created tomorrow, if we close our eyes and wish ever so fervently, then it will happen.” Such quick wit has won him much admiration (although he once confided to his friend and fellow NDP MP Ian Waddell that he regretted having made too many “smart-assed quips” in Ottawa). Rae immortalized Bank of Canada Governor Gerald Bouey as “Bouey the 16th” and Industry Minister Herb Gray as “Amazing Gray—once he was fired but now he’s hired.”

In turn, the jester has been tagged with a few labels himself. Rae and peo-

pie close to him bristle at the “silverspoon socialist” cliché pinned on him by Tory leader Joe Clark. Still, there has been a charmed aura around his life. Admits U of T colleague and lifetime friend Graham Fraser, Quebec City bureau chief for the Montreal Gazette: “There’s no question that to have spent parts of one’s childhood in London, Ottawa, Washington and Geneva gives one a kind of sophistication and privilege as a child that only the very rich can have. But wealth has been no part of Bob Rae’s background.” The globe-trotting was due to father Saul Rae’s service in the Canadian diplomatic corps, and the rich intellectual homelife came from Saul and his wife, Lois, who took a BA in history at Cambridge University. As parents, they didn’t do badly: Jennifer, 38, is an Ottawa freelance writer who works for the Canadian Council on Children and Youth; John, 36, is a Power Corporation vice-president; and David, 24, works in New York with the Bank of Montreal’s Latin American division.

Wherever the family happened to be posted, the Raes’ sitting room resembled a page taken from a modern Canadian history book, with frequent visits from such politicians as Lester Pearson and former finance minister Donald Fleming and diplomats George Ignatieff (“Bobby was one of the most intelligent young men I’ve ever come across,” he says) and Charles Ritchie. As Rae’s wife, Arlene Perly, a 32-yearold Air Canada purser with an MA in drama from U of T, observes, “You can’t go to any event of more than 20 people and not meet somebody who wants to reminisce about Bob’s parents.”

From his father, the son of an immigrant Scottish tailor and once part of a family vaudeville act called the “Little Raes of Sunshine,” come Rae’s musical gifts (he plays both piano and guitar), his often bawdy sense of humor and his talents for mimicry. He often prefers to couch his most savage attacks in satire. During the Ontario NDP leadership campaign he composed a song about the double billing of the medical professions to the tune of Makin’ Whoopee: “Another heart, another

hand,/another liver, another gland./ There is a reason they like your sneezing,/They’re making money,” went one verse. On a more philosophical level, Rae says his father “gave me a sense about people, about never looking at problems in the abstract.” Rae has little patience for woolly-headed socialists who “constantly quest for the absolute.” His need to grapple with everyday problems led him to work first with community groups in London’s impoverished North End and back in Canada with the Union of Injured Workers and then the Steelworkers. It made

him feel, he says simply, “useful.” When the time came to enter politics, Rae took a calculated gamble on a traditional NDP seat in Toronto and won the byelection by a 400-vote margin. In the same manner, he carefully weighed the pros and cons of a bid for the Ontario leadership although it took concerted lobbying from party officials to persuade him to give up his Ottawa seat, especially since he and Arlene had just had their first child. A key factor was his own chance at the federal leadership, which, because he is from Ontario, is thought by party observers to be slim.

Says Waddell: “He felt that the next federal NDP leader should come from the West.”

Without a seat in the Ontario Legislature (and a noticeable absence of charitable offers from Metro Toronto MPPs), Rae’s goal is to establish the NDP as the “credible party of government in Ontario.” Unlike his predecessors, he talks about when, not if, the NDP will take power. A pragmatist whom Ed Broadbent credits with the savvy to present policies that make practical, political sense, Rae is regarded skeptically by left wingers who fought for policy

resolutions favoring such issues as the nationalization of corporations—including banks—at the leadership convention. Instead, he takes a cautious line, favoring nationalization in resource industries only, for the time being at least, because to go further would “mean destroying a lot of jobs and security.” He chose a safe issue when he vowed in his victory speech to campaign against doctor’s over-billing. “We put the Davis government on notice today that health—the very gift of life itself— is not for sale in the province of Ontario,” he said. He is, as he told a caller on a Toronto open-line show recently, “very much in the centre of my own party.”

Sitting in a rocking chair in the living room of an unassuming brick house in Toronto’s east end with Arlene and sixmonth-old Judith, Rae appears little changed from his childhood pictures which show a tousled, blond Christopher Robin of a boy with an adult-sized chin. He has matured into a short boyish-looking adult with a jutting jaw and slightly gawky expression, somewhat at odds with comparisons made in the press to Robert Redford. Wise says he has never understood his friend’s attractiveness to women, calling him a “funny-looking guy with glasses, a washed-out face and crummy blond hair.”

His appeal to his political opponents is, predictably, less compelling. Progressive Conservative Sinclair Stevens has sniffed at Rae’s “ivory-towerish” political naïveté and labelled him “a typically university-produced socialist, full of philosophy and theory. He has forgotten that he’s out of the classroom, and when he tries to apply his nonsense to the cold, stark world he gets into trouble” (Rae, in turn, dubs Stev-

ens the “Rex Humbard of capitalism”). Former Tory finance minister John Crosbie referred to him as a “socialist in striped pants and spats.”

But there’s no denying his powerful appeal to the media. Since his arrival on Parliament’s doorstep, he’s been the fair-haired boy, largely because of his ability and willingness to offer up a pithy quote in a hurry and his considerable political moxy. Party energy critic Waddell says Rae once advised him: “Don’t keep going over and talking to [Federal Energy Minister Marc] Lalonde in the Commons. It’s just not done.” Wise tells a more revealing story about his awareness of appearance: “One night he phoned me and asked me to read him a story about him in that day’s Toronto Star because the papers hadn’t arrived in Ottawa yet,” he recalls. “So, I did. Then he asks me if there was a picture with the story, and I tell him, ‘yes.’ Then, he wants to know how big it was. Can you imagine? He was

just like a little kid. He really wanted to know how big it was!”

His perfectionism, what Rae terms “being too hard on myself,” hasn’t always worked to his advantage. After he returned to Toronto from London in 1974, Rae slipped into a depression, torn between a commitment to academic life and a desire to become more involved with the real world. For a year he talked with a psychotherapist, until the boy named “most likely to succeed” at a high school in Geneva, learned to stop making unrealistic demands on himself.

Perhaps only in his tendency to be oversensitive to criticism has Rae fallen short of his goal. For someone who has been so well treated by the press, he can be surprisingly thin-skinned. He still fusses about a reference to shyness in a laudatory profile by Jeffrey Simpson that appeared in Saturday Night last year. It’s a sensitivity he’s going to have to shed in order to survive the Queen’s Park bear pit. After a leadership speech in which he described Tory-land as an “Anglo-Saxon land” where black faces are not seen and French, Italian and Greek not spoken, the Tories gleefully jumped on him. Ontario Premier William Davis called the comments “the first mistake Mr. Rae has made,” adding ominously that “he really doesn’t understand the province yet.”

Another sinister forecast of what could be in store for a young politician accustomed to Ottawa’s tamer sparring was contained in a recent cartoon in The Globe and Mail. It shows Rae bopping along unsuspectingly, as Davis stands in wait for him around a corner, restraining a mean-looking dog who is evidently thirsty for the kill. And it sure looks as if the animal is about to spring.