Bob Rae on Michael Ignatieff
In a wide-ranging, three-part interview with The Real News Network Senior Editor Paul Jay, (www.therealnews.com), Bob Rae, Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic and former Premier of Ontario, discusses the Liberal Party leadership crisis in the waning days of 2008 and his views about his new leader, Michael Ignatieff.
In the first segment of the interview released April 16 on TheRealNews.com , Mr. Rae asserts that the executive of the Liberal Party left him no choice but withdraw from the leadership race or face a destructive fight.
In the second segment of the interview, to be released on April 17, Rae is asked if he thinks the collapse of the effort to create a coalition government was a lost opportunity for change in Canadian politics.
In the third segment of the interview to be released on April 18, Rae is asked his opinion on Ignatieff’s thesis of “imperialism light” and his leader’s public defense of the Iraq war.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. In the last few weeks of 2008, Canada was at a unique moment in terms of its politics. The Conservative government was in crisis, the opposition parties were threatening to bring it down over its budget, and a unique coalition was developing between the Liberal Party, The Bloc Québécois, and the New Democrats to form a coalition government. In the midst of all of this was a leadership race going on. Stéphane Dion, the leader of the Liberal Party, was sort of on shaky legs, having just won a convention and lost an election. And one of the men at the center of all of this, the coalition, and the possible next leader of the Liberal Party, was Bob Rae. And Bob joins us now to discuss all of this. Thanks, Bob.
BOB RAE, FOREIGN AFFAIRS CRITIC, MP (LIB.): Good to be with you.
JAY: Now, in the Canadian audience, Bob Rae needs no introduction. But a lot of our audience is American, so let me go back and tell them who you are. So Bob Rae is now a sitting member of Parliament for the Liberal Party. He is our foreign-affairs critic. He was also the 21st premier of the province of Ontario. And he also sits on the Parliamentary committee on Afghanistan, amongst other responsibilities. So thanks again, Bob.
RAE: Great to be with you.
JAY: So set the context. What was happening in these last weeks of 2008? And what happened to your [inaudible]?
RAE: Well, we had an election in the fall, and the election had produced a minority government—a Conservative government, but they didn’t have the majority of the seats in Parliament. Majority were held by the other three parties—the Liberal Party, the Democratic Party, which is a sort of a social-democratic party, and the Bloc Québécois, which is a Quebec nationalist party. And the decision was made that, okay, we’ll let the Conservatives form the government and then figure out what they’re going to do. We’re facing an economic crisis or challenge of great dimensions, a little different from the US, a ton of it based in manufacturing, huge increases in unemployment, which were already starting to kick in. And in late November of 2008, the Conservative government brought in an economic statement that was supposed to reflect their view of where we were, which said, “Don’t worry. We’re still in surplus. We’re facing economic challenges, but we’ll have a surplus this year, next year, and in future years. We’re going to take away funding for political parties. We’re going to change the law in a number of other ways.” And it’s business as usual. And there was, I think, almost a kind of a sense that something snapped inside Parliament, and that was that this government can’t carry on like this. It can’t persist in this attitude.
JAY: And this is at a time where in the United States there’s talk of an enormous stimulus program.
RAE: Yeah. Well, you’d had your election, Obama had been elected, and there was moving forward on the economy, and, obviously, a great sense around the world, not just in the US but in the UK, in Europe, everywhere, a great sense of crisis. And it was clear we had a government that was in dramatic denial. So it required a very quick response. And there were discussions between the three opposition parties: what are we going to do? Our problem was that we were in the middle of a leadership change.
JAY: “Our” meaning the Liberal Party of Canada.
RAE: The Liberal Party. The Liberal Party in Canada was in the middle of a leadership change, where the leader, Stéphane Dion, had indicated he was not going to be continuing on in office. There was a convention scheduled in May. And I think it would be fair to say that Mr. Dion took a lot of the rap for what had happened in the previous election, and he felt it was time for him to go. And I think there was a general sense that was right, that was a wise decision on his part. But he carried on as the leader until a replacement was chosen. I had indicated my interest in running, and Michael Ignatieff had indicated his, and a third candidate had indicated his.
JAY: And just for reference, for people who don’t know that in the previous convention I think you had come in third in the leadership race, Ignatieff had come in second, and Dion had won.
RAE: Dion had won, but through making his own arrangements with other candidates. So to try to make it comprehensible, it was a very fast discussion between the three parties in opposition, saying, “Okay, we’ll try to form a replacement government,” which under the Canadian parliamentary rules is perfectly permissible. But, you know, we had far fewer seats than the Conservatives. The Liberals have 77 seats; the Bloc had around 51; the NDP had in the 30s. So eventually the two parties—the NDP and the Liberals—agreed on an arrangement for governing, where the NDP would get 5 or 6 seats in Cabinet.
JAY: Now, we’re in late November, early December?
RAE: Yeah, late November, early December. It all happened very fast. I mean, it happened tremendously quickly, because there was a sense of impending crisis. Parliament was still in session.
JAY: And just for the American viewers, what the process would have been: all these parties would have gotten together, had a vote of no confidence, and brought down the government some time during December before the break for the holidays.
RAE: Absolutely right. And it would have been very early on after. So, basically, the first thing that happened was the Conservatives said, well, no, we’re actually not going to have a vote of confidence for another week. So they kicked it off for a week. So that meant there was time for discussion. And there was an arrangement arrived at where the Liberals and Conservatives would reach an arrangement on governing, the Bloc Québécois would agree that they would support that government for a period of 18 months, which could be renewed if things were okay. So that was signed. It was sealed. It was announced. It was there. Mr. Harper went on television, said this is a major crisis, this is quite unconstitutional, quite improper, quite wrong, blah-blah-blah: “I’m going to go to the governor general and ask her to prorogue Parliament,” which means to basically suspend Parliament for six weeks, “and that’s going to clear the air.” So he did that, he went to the governor general, and she said, “Fine.” She said, “Okay, you can prorogue Parliament,” which was a very, fair to say, controversial decision that she made, but she made it. And under our system, she’s the representative of the queen, and if she says that’s okay, then that’s okay. We can all complain and rail about it and hold demonstrations, but that’s the way it was. So Parliament was suspended for six weeks.
JAY: There’s no process through the courts at all, is there?
RAE: No, no. This is the British Constitution and how it works. So, essentially where we were was the Liberal Party had to figure out what it was going to do, and in the meantime a particular issue had arisen over a response that Mr. Dion gave on television to Mr. Harper’s announcement, and there was a general view that, well, this isn’t going to work, and, you know, it’s-fine-for-him-to-go kind of feeling. And when that took hold, Mr. Ignatieff said, “Well, I’m going to apply to become the interim leader, and I’ll be the interim leader until the convention.”
JAY: We’re now in December, December ’08.
RAE: Yeah, December ’08. And I said, well, I don’t, you know, have trouble with that. The interim leader is supposed to be an interim job, not supposed to be a permanent job.
JAY: Okay. Let me just set the stage slightly more. So the leadership race had really come down, at this point, to you and Ignatieff.
RAE: And Mr. LeBlanc, who was also in the race. There were three of us in the race.
JAY: Right. But at some point not far, doesn’t he, LeBlanc, exit and throw his support to you?
JAY: No? I’m sorry. I thought he did.
RAE: No, that’s not what happened. In fact, what happened was, to simplify the story, is that Mr. Ignatieff said, “I want to be the interim leader.” And we said to the party, look, we all recognize that there has to be a permanent leader in place when the Parliament comes back at the end of January and that we need to have a leader at that point. Why don’t we do an Internet consultation with the party? Why don’t we do some method in the next six weeks of consulting with the whole party to have a vote? And that decision went to the party executive on the night of December 8, the Liberal Party executive, and they concluded that that wasn’t going to happen, that they didn’t think there was any provision in the party rules to allow that to happen. And they said, “No, the process for choosing an interim leader is that there’ll be a consultation with the caucus and with a few other people, and they’ll decide who the leader’s going to be and the interim leader’s going to be, and that’s the rest of it.” And that decision was made late at night on Monday. And on the next morning, I woke up, read the decision, and I said, well, now, I have a choice. I either fight the decision of the executive, for which there’s no appeal—like, there’s nowhere to go, except back to the executive, which I obviously didn’t control. And so that seemed to me kind of fruitless. It would have ended up being a very contested—and the Liberal Party’s had a history of, you know, deep divisions within it.
JAY: But you did issue a statement, didn’t you, at that time, protesting this?
RAE: Well, no.
JAY: You were quoted in the press, at the very least, calling this undemocratic.
RAE: I didn’t like the decision, but what I said was the decision has been made. And at that point I had to make a decision as to whether there was going to continue to be an intense debate and rivalry within the—let me finish—within the party, or whether I was going to say, “Enough.” It’s clear that the party executive has made a decision, and there isn’t going to be an opportunity to consult the wider party. And therefore I decided that I would withdraw from the leadership race and support Mr. Ignatieff and try to bring a greater degree of unity to the party as we went forward. And that’s my decision. Actually, I’m very happy with the decision. I think it was a wise decision. I think it was a necessary decision.
JAY: But before the decision, I think it’s on the morning of December 8, I mean, you’re quoted in the press as talking about this as being a very undemocratic process. You talk about who’s getting disenfranchised—people who don’t have members of Parliament.
RAE: Oh, yeah. The party executive made a decision that there would not be a broad-based consultation with the membership on electing a new leader. That’s the party executive’s decision. I didn’t think it was a good idea. But I also can count. The party executive made the decision that the consultation would be with a very restricted group, and I felt that that was not going to produce—it wasn’t going to elect me. I knew that, for starters. But I also knew that if we continued with the fight—. In other words, we’ve had battles in the Liberal Party, going back many generations, between, you know, rivalries for the leadership, and I felt that was fundamentally unproductive and not something that I wanted to do.
JAY: The differences between you and Ignatieff that appeared during the campaign, the leadership campaign in the previous convention, and if you look at your records, particularly on foreign-policy issues, there are some pretty profound differences, in my opinion at least, and I’m going to ask you if that’s true in your opinion in the next segment of our interview. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Bob Rae.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.