NATIONAL

WHY I LEFT THE LEFT BEHIND

The Liberal candidate on his defection, and his vision for Canada

BOB RAE October 30 2006
NATIONAL

WHY I LEFT THE LEFT BEHIND

The Liberal candidate on his defection, and his vision for Canada

BOB RAE October 30 2006

WHY I LEFT THE LEFT BEHIND

NATIONAL

The Liberal candidate on his defection, and his vision for Canada

BOB RAE

I spent 20 years of my life as a member of the New Democratic Party, and was elected eight times to federal and provincial parliament as an NDP member. Why did I leave the NDP to join the Liberals?

Simply put, after lengthy personal experience, I concluded that the federal NDP and its Ontario counterpart are wedded to a culture of opposition and protest. They have great difficulty embracing the lessons of the postwar world about the relationship between markets, society and government. Determined to be in Canada what one of their leaders described as the “last, best, left,” the New Democrats are confining themselves to an ever-smaller universe. They are ignoring obvious lessons of history, solid research, and the example of other left-leaning parties elsewhere, such as “new Labour” in Britain.

In my 1998 book, The Three Questions, the argument I expressed was that the pursuit of wealth creation was not opposed to social justice, as much thinking on the left seemed to imply. Rather, good public policy required a commitment to a balance between the selfinterest of the market and the broader claims of the public good. Citing Edmund Burke’s aphorism that “there is nothing more dangerous than governing in the name of a theory,” the underlying theme of the book was the need to avoid ideological enthusiasm. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that both the right and the left have been unable to avoid the lure of ideology.

At its core, the NDP, both in Ontario and federally, has been more committed to protest than to seeing the country achieve a balanced, progressive, effective government. It cannot escape a knee-jerk reaction to business entrepreneurship and wealth creation. Most social democratic parties in power have had to

address issues of marginal tax rates for businesses and individuals from an intensely practical viewpoint. Governments from Manitoba to Sweden have accepted that this is a precondition for prosperity. But the federal NDP’s recent opposition to any tax changes for large and even small business is a sure sign that “private sector is bad, public sector is good” is a flawed mantra it simply can’t avoid.

In the last federal election, the NDP’s final pitch to any Liberal was to “please lend us your vote” for one election. The party of Pearson and Trudeau, the argument went, wasn’t being represented by the current leadership: time in the penalty box would do the trick.

With a refreshed and refocused leadership, the Liberal party is surely entitled to say to those same voters: “We are the party of Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau. We are the party of prosperity, fairness and pluralism. The NDP has not earned the right to retain your vote. We would like your vote back.”

The roots of the Liberal Party of Canada lie in the power of two ideas: first, responsible government required the end of an unaccountable Family Compact and its replacement by reform-minded governments committed to expanding democracy and the public good.

Second, since, in Laurier’s words, “Canada is a very difficult country to govern,” the greatest care has to be paid to the sensitivities

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of French and English, the balance between regions, the never-ending issue of national unity, and the need to put our relationship with Aboriginal peoples on a new footing. Í z The Liberal party’s strength is its capacity o g for governing and statecraft, its determinate tion to seek balance, and its underlying como 3 mitment to prosperity and the sharing of opportunity. ¡^2 Jean Chrétien’s election in 1993 and the crushing defeat of the Progressive Conserim g vatives provided the party with a fresh chance g a to prove its strength and relevance to Canari 5 da’s needs. The greatest achievement of those ^3 years was undoubtedly the elimination of o g the deficit and the return of real fiscal strength £ z to the country. J-¡ To these must be added the decision to sign

the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the commitment to higher education, innovation and research, and Canada’s renewed focus on international development and peacemaking. Changes to Canada’s election financing laws will also be seen as a critical legacy.

Paul Martin’s accession to office in 2003 was quickly followed by an election in the spring of 2004. While only given a minority mandate, there were marked achievements of the Martin years, most notably the negotiation of the agreement known as the Kelowna accord, a budget described by Greenpeace as “the greenest in Canadian history,” and a historic agreement on child care negotiated by Liberal MP Ken Dryden that marked both federal leadership and provincial flexibility.

I HAVE LEARNED from hard experience the costs of the ideology that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives want to impose on Canada, and that Canadians in a majority voted against in the last election. I am running as a Liberal for the leadership of the Liberal party because I have learned that Canada needs a party that is committed to change, that is open to all Canadians, and that understands that politics is about people, not theories and ideologies.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier talked of his “sunny ways,” and reminded Canadians that faith and love are more important than doubt

and hate. I like the Liberal party because it is optimistic, because it builds on hope, not fear, because it believes in opportunity for everyone, because it is inclusive. My dad always used to say about certain people, “He’s a big person, he’s a builder.” For me, the glass is always half full. I love this country and all its people, and for me the Liberal party best expresses those feelings.

There are some basic lessons I’ve drawn from my experiences as an active politician, premier, and mediator and problem-solver over the last 30 years. The first lesson I learned is what I call the Ella Fitzgerald lesson: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” Prosperity and the encouragement of prosperity are critical. Not simply desirable, they are vital to improving the lot of

our citizens today and those who will join us here in the future. I governed during the worst recession since the 1930s. The prosperity of the late 1980s came to a dramatic halt. Immediately, we learned of the difficulties that that entailed. Many business people have told me that in good times mistakes can be quickly overcome. In tough times, that is just not the case.

Since my time as premier of Ontario, Canada has developed a collective allergy to deficits, and that is a good thing. In some ways that has become as much a part of our political identity as quality health care. We must continue to keep our fiscal house in order.

We need competitive tax and regulatory policies, but they must be balanced by a renewed focus on learning, on innovation, and investments in infrastructure that encourage private and public investment. This was a key focus of the Chrétien-Martin years. They are not, apparently, on the Harper priority list. Harper’s idea of economic policy is to take a point off the GST. His right hand doesn’t know what his far right hand is doing. It just isn’t enough for a complex economy like Canada’s.

It’s a tough, competitive world out there. Preparing Canadians for the challenge ahead is at the top of my list. It needs to be a focus of our politics again. But as important as prosperity is, it is not enough. It must be matched with purpose.

Wealth creation must be a partner to shared opportunity. Children living in poverty are a challenge to our conscience and to our future. Child poverty challenges our sense of what makes sense—we know full well that generations left behind will be more likely to fall ill, to go to jail, to need constant support. Canadians deserve better.

I’ve learned that trying to turn heads is more important than counting heads. Taking what my father called the pulse of democracy should not deter people from understanding that things change—and that things must change. Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, I’d have given them a faster horse.” We need to listen—but we also need to lead.

Ending child poverty is where we can lead. It can be, should be, a goal of our government. First reducing it, then eliminating it. To do that you have to begin at the beginning. With health care, with early learning and child development, with high-quality and affordable child care, with the social safety net that defines us as Canadians.

We need a health care strategy that ensures our public system is accessible, safe, of high quality, and includes a focus on wellness and prevention, especially in the early years. The federal government must come to the health care table as a player and a partner to help ensure these ends.

When a quarter of our high school students drop out, and a further 25 per cent graduate school without going on, we have a problem. When students’ perception of the costs of higher education is greater than their sense of the value that comes from postsecondary skills, we have a problem. As Canadians, we have to strive for better.

During the last federal election campaign I was struck, like many Canadians, by the absence of discussion from the major political parties of Canada’s place in the world. It is no secret, no astounding revelation, that our well-being depends on what is happening around us. Our economic health is dependent on our trade with partners across the globe as well as just across the border. Our citizens come from every region of the world.

NDP IS COMMITTED TO PROTEST-NOT GOOD GOVERNMENT

As Canadians, we would do well to remember the respect we have gained internationally— our reputation for stability and fairness and as a country that works. But that is not enough.

It must be matched by a commitment to meet our international obligations, and then do more to lead.

A foreign policy born of an ideology and excessive rhetoric is bound to fail—we have heard the reverberations of such failure echo ’round the world. Jean Chrétien was right about Canada and Iraq—not because he was following public opinion, but because he thought the invasion ill-advised and contrary to international law. It was a judgment call that was fundamentally sound, reflected our values, and offered our independent voice.

Like all the major problems that face our world, Canada cannot solve environmental degradation and global warming alone. But we should be more of a leader. Signing the Kyoto Protocol was only the first step—accepting targets is one thing, achieving them is another. It would be nice to say that retreat from Kyoto is unthinkable. But, in fact, we know with the current government it is not. Mr. Flarper has put us on notice: the Kyoto Protocol is of no importance to him. I disagree. Our environment—our children’s future—is not negotiable.

The Conservatives are attempting to take us down paths that do not reflect our strengths or speak to our most pressing challenges. On foreign policy, Canada’s voice has gone missing under the Conservatives. Most Canadians support Kyoto, child care, and rights for minorities. They want to see us investing in

education, health care, and research and innovation. Canadians want and deserve an alternative that is hopeful, generous, dedicated to building prosperity and sharing opportunity. I want to help shape that alternative and get our country back on track.

The sooner, the better.

I have learned a great deal about federalism. I worked on and supported the Meech and Charlottetown accords, but in recent years the experience of working with nations struggling to create their own federalism has also deepened my appreciation for what we have achieved in Canada. The Liberal Party of Canada has a fine tradition in building federalism that needs to be remembered and revered. From Laurier to Martin, Liberals have understood the twin need to be

sensitive to the concerns of Quebec and French Canadians without compromising the ability to relate directly to all the citizens of Canada. Reconciliation and a deepened relationship with Aboriginal peoples is a further challenge to which our federal system can and must respond.

I have had extraordinary opportunities to serve over the years. Every project has introduced me to more Canadians, taught me more about what is meaningful to us, shown me more about who we are as a people.

From Burnt Church to softwood lumber, from terrorism to education, I have been forced to think of practical, workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems. I cannot claim to have always succeeded. I bear, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, the scars of having fought in the arena. But the arena is where one learns how to fight for what one believes in—and how to win. M

From Canada in the Balance by Bob Rae, available in bookstores Nov. 4,2006. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart Ltd.