Friday, June 08, 2012

Don’t do it, Bob

A minor kerfuffle erupted in the political twittersphere yesterday evening following aCBC Power and Politics report claiming sources had told it the Liberal Party of Canada’s national executive  had decided it would “allow” interim leader Bob Rae to run for the permanent leadership, and that Rae had decided to go for the permanent job and had a team organized and in place.

The twittersphere quickly went bananas, as the twittersphere is want to do. And as media reports are want to be, the report was just a little torqued and was later back-tracked somewhat. The national executive hasn’t actually met yet; it’s expected to meet Wednesday and it will make a decision then. Of course, they’re expected to decide exactly what the CBC said they already had; the report was just slightly premature.

And the decision is really pro forma anyway; I’ve said all along that, as long as he steps down form the interim job first, nothing prevents him from running for the permanent job. There is no rule to change. All that stands in his way is his promise, and we’ll get to that shortly.

 So the decision from the executive, when it comes, isn’t really major news. What is news though was the report, denied by Rae, that he has made the decision to run for the permanent leadership and has already organized a team to do so. From the CBC:

Sources say Rae has made his decision. He has started prepping staff and a team to help him with leadership. This signals he is in, Thibedeau said.

And it’s not just the CBC. This is from CP:

Indeed, there have been signs that his campaign is already in gear, with at least one organizer, Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis, signing up supporters among ethnic communities across the country.

It should be noted that Karygiannis tweeted that article, and that passage, which certainly isn’t a denial of the report. Rather the opposite, in fact.

While he could change his mind up until the moment he formally declares, Rae running seems like a foregone conclusion. Frankly, it has since he took the interim position last year. But since nothing has yet been carved in stone, I hope he considers this caredully because I think him deciding to run would be a serious and unfortunate mistake.

A promise not to the executive, but to Liberal members

A lot of revisionist history has begun to crop up about the events last summer under which Rae assumed the interim leadership. First of all, he wasn’t the only person willing to do the job. Marc Garneau, for example, indicated he wasprepared to serve but would yield to Rae if he wanted the job. And others in caucus would have come forward; they didn’t because Rae expressed interest and they respected him as a logical, able choice.

Also, an evil and conniving national executive didn’t bind Rae into a strait-jacket and force him to renounce his career ambitions as some sort of Get Bob conspiracy. The executive laid-out clearly the criteria it was looking for in an interim leader: they should be bilingual, they should have the support of caucus, and they should pledge not to run for the permanent job. Why the last one? Because the party needed an interim leader focused on rebuilding, not campaigning. Because interim leader comes with a profile and budget paid by the taxpayers and party fundraising dollars that other candidates don’t have. It would tilt the playing field unfairly, and we need a fair race.

These conditions were clear, transparent and were asked of all candidates. And, in accepting them, Rae made a promise. Not just to the old executive, but to every Liberal member. The “rule” such as it was went away once the interim leader was selected. But his word remains. And while the executive can state the obvious (as long as he steps down as interim leader first of course he’s free to run) they can’t absolve him of his promise. Because it wasn’t just a promise to them; it was a promise to us.

Now, if he wants to go back on his word he’s going to need to explain why. Some people will accept it, and some won’t. But it has to start with the honest admission that yes, I did make a promise, and then go into here’s why.

Instead, we’ve seen a coyness for months that has distracted the party from its work, and has led the media to write distracting leadership stories instead of focusing on the able work that has been happening in Parliament, opposing Harper. Clearstatements reaffirming his promise not to run have evolved into transparentstatements that “I’ll decide when the executive says if they’ll let me or not.”

A long time coming

Frankly, this is the scenario I’ve expected and feared since Rae was appointed interim leader last summer. While his public statements were clear that he had promised not to run, his written statement was much more cleverly worded.

I shall abide by any rules about the interim leadership, agreed to by the caucus and the Board.  I have made it a watchword of my time in public life to practice the politics of unity and principled compromise.  I shall continue to do so.

That seemed to me like he was trying to leave some wiggle-room so I asked him, point-blank, “Should this board, or a future board, say that the interim leader running for permanent leader is fine, would you (should you be the interim leader) then run for permanent leader? Basically, I'd like to know this: if you become interim leader, are you definitively ruling-out running for permanent leader under any circumstances? I think this is something that should be made clear for all.”

He responded as follows:

Jeff I think the letter is very clear - there's a job to be done and the party executive has established rules. I accept the rules.

I felt the letter was anything but clear, but I dropped it and moving on. My feeling was this: Rae at least wanted to keep open the option of running. He wanted to take on the interim job, successfully lobby members to extend the period of hisinterim leadership by more than one year, and then use that period as an extended try-out. His hope was that, if he performed well and grew the party and our polling support, he’d be drafted to run and any fine points about promises would be overlooked. And if he decided not to run in the end, no harm no foul.

As the public statements began to move more into line with the carefully worded letter, it became more clear this was the scenario unfolding. Except I don’t think it has gone as they’d have hoped for. While Rae has performed solidly in Parliament and certainly outshone Nycole Turmel, we remain lower in the polls than ever and, since Tom Mulcair took the NDP leadership, our profile in Parliament and in the public debate has dropped dramatically. One Rae organizereven called it a “year of misery” on Twitter. Hardly the springboard one would hope for.

Don’t do it, Bob

For me, it boils down to this:

*  Bob absolutely is and should be allowed to run, and if the executive was to somehow say he couldn’t, I’d be the first to the barricades to fight that undemocratic decision
* Bob made a promise to Liberals that he wouldn’t run, it was a promise made for very good reasons, and I think he should keep his word.

Rae has a chance to continue the work of rebuilding that he was nobly undertaken and be the steady hand at the tiller, keeping us relevant in Parliament as interim leader while the party begins to focus on the leadership race. Then he can pass the torch to the duly elected permanent leader for the next generation, cementing his status as an elder statesman.

Or, he can break his promise to Liberals, recast his past year of work as pre-campaigning for the job with the donation dollars of those same Liberal members, open us up to the obvious attacks of dishonesty and trust, and discourage potential leadership candidates who don’t want to enter such a tilted playing field.

I hope he makes the right choice.

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