In the Ontario summer election of 1990, as Bob Rae prepared to address the CAW, his handlers got the first internal polling results showing the NDP winning government. As party president Julie Davis later explained, they waited until he finished to give him the good news — no use throwing him off his game before addressing that keyed-up audience. There was no telling what announcing such unexpected responsibilities would do to a guy about to deliver a rousing speech with a radical message.

In that election, the Ontario NDP went after profitable corporations that paid no income taxes. Rae and his government went on to create a Fair Tax Commission, and bring in a corporate minimum tax.

That was then, and this is now.

The Ontario NDP leader (his name is Howard Hampton, just in case you don’t know) will not be invited to speak to the CAW in the next election, nor will he lead his party to victory. His party has expelled the CAW president; the Tories lurk waiting to replace the provincial Liberals.

As for Bob Rae, he has apparently left the NDP. His name features in articles speculating about the federal Liberal leadership race. He is said to be gauging support.

While the mere mention of Buzz Hargrove gets people in the NDP all worked up, the defection of Rae has not garnered much comment. The Rae government was judged to have failed. It “threw away a miracle” as the authors of a book on the Ontario NDP put it.

The Rae regime did do the traditional social democratic thing, and turned on its own supporters, notably the Ontario public service unions. The rift between the government and its unions, turned into a split within the union movement, and carried over into a subsequent cooling of relations between the national party, and the Canadian Labour Congress.

From the day of its election the Rae government faced a hostile attack by the press, backed by big business. The NDP were ineffective in mounting a defence, and to this day most people believe the media propaganda about the government.

Of note, the press offensive was led by the Financial Post, edited by John Godfrey, now officially himself a candidate for the Liberal leadership.

Bob Rae had been recruited as the Ontario leader from the federal NDP caucus where he had shone as finance critic, helping to bring down the Joe Clark Conservatives in 1979 with a motion defeating its budget, thus opening the door for the return of Pierre Trudeau for his last term. Trudeau made the best of it: by winning the Quebec referendum, patriating the constitution and incorporating the Charter of Rights, he set the political table for the country for the rest of the century.

Later it was suggested that the Ontario Federation of Labour should have got Ed Broadbent, not Bob Rae, to lead the Ontario party. Broadbent had deep roots in the province, while Bob Rae looked good in the federal Parliament, and was at ease with national issues.

His parliamentary experience may explain why Rae is considering a political comeback at the national level. Premier Rae spent a lot of his time managing the file with the label: Future of Canada, Quebec, and the Constitution. Rae has more credibility in Quebec than is generally appreciated, and no doubt would like to contribute to national reconciliation.

A Rae candidacy for the Liberal leadership could be put together around the ideas he and his party advanced in Ontario: fair taxes, a social charter, and an industrial strategy other than free trade. The Ontario economy is faltering, and unlike the early 1980s, a revived auto industry is not going to save it. And Ontario is now the Liberal base.

But do not bet on Rae raising economic strategy. There is no evidence the Liberals are looking to debate with themselves about the economy. The party thinks it did a good job as economic stewards from 1993 to 2005, and likes the numbers it has left for the history books on unemployment, deficits, current account surpluses and inflation.

However, the reality for a lot of people is not reflected in those numbers. Poverty, inequality, poor government services, declining real incomes, rising debt, a lack of affordable housing — these are the circumstances faced by a lot of people across the country.

The post-Trudeau period has featured the neo-conservative agenda in Ottawa under Conservative and Liberal governments. The social liberals from Quebec who came into the Liberal party in the 1960s following Jean Marchand, Gerard Pelletier and Pierre Trudeau, disappeared with Trudeau in 1984. Big business Liberals such as C.D. Howe have dominated the party outside Quebec since the postwar period.

In a recent speech Rae said he wants to unite progressives. Presumably he wants to ignite a social liberalism within the Liberal party, and contrast it with the Stephen Harper brand of conservatism. Perhaps he looks to a Buzz Hargrove style strategic voting coalition, with NDP members countering Harper in the West.

The irony is that for Rae to succeed as a Liberal candidate for the leadership he has to count on his appeal to Quebec where currently the young provincial Liberals are among the most reactionary groups in the country. Unless he has unrevealed sources of support in Ontario, Rae could be embarrassed in his home province.

The Rae government was defeated by the recession that followed free trade and high interest rates. Mike Harris, a neo-conservative calling himself the tax fighter did the job. Despite its Fair Tax Commission, the party never connected on the issues with the people.

Bob Rae has obviously concluded that the NDP itself is part of the problem and unlikely to provide an alternative solution to neo-conservatism.

So far nobody from the NDP has seen fit to take him on.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...