By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, June 13, 2012
Bob Rae has told his caucus that he will not be seeking the post of permanent leader of the Liberal Party.
The Interim Leader's announcement confounds the expectations of his own caucus, of analysts, of Conservative and NDP strategists.
It throws the race for the Liberal leadership wide open. It will increase the pressure on Montreal MP Justin Trudeau to step up to the leadership plate.
It is, in a word, a shocker.
The board of directors of the Liberal Party will meet Wednesday night to firm up plans for the leadership race, with a vote to be held sometime in spring of 2013.
The board was also expected to formally release Mr. Rae from his pledge, as Interim Leader, not to seek the permanent helm.
Mr. Rae had promised that he would announce his intentions shortly after the board made that decision. In the event, he appears to have decided to pre-empt the matter entirely.
In some respects, Mr. Rae’s decision is a bit of a blessing for the party. He will, presumably, stay on as Interim Leader, providing a steady hand in caucus and before the public as Liberals seek a new chief and a new direction.
Beyond that, his decision not to run will lessen the internecine tension that has afflicted the Liberals for decades. Already, the party was dividing into two camps: those who wanted Mr. Rae to lead the party into the next election, and those who wanted anyone but Mr. Rae in that job.
On the one hand, his experience and high public profile would have made him a formidable opponent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.
On the other hand, many feared that Ontario voters had neither forgotten nor forgiven Mr. Rae’s tenure as NDP premier of that province, which led to his sound defeat in 1995.
By stepping aside from the contest, Mr. Rae has eliminated one possibility of a polarized race that could have led to increased factional bitterness after the result, whatever the result.
First the Liberal Party owes a great deal of thanks for the more than commendable job Mr. Rae has done in a precarious political situation following the May 2, 2011 election debacle. He has been, by far, the best of the party leaders in the House, although the period has been marked by both the death of Jack Layton and his interim replacement, Yvonne Turmel, and subsequently, the election of Thomas Mulcair, while Harper has been a constant leading the Conservatives.
While Mr. Ibbitson notes the removal of a significant potential contender for the Liberal leadership will likely lessen the chances of a deeply bitter internecine party war, no matter who wins, there is a serious question as to the future of the Liberal Party of Canada, considering the profound pummelling it has taken in the last few years.
There is really no one in the current caucus, or among those who formerly sought the position, and are once again considering entering the race, who have the gravitas of a Mr. Rae, in spite of the baggage of his Ontario premiership. His political judgement is sound, his brain and back are battle-worn with many scars still healing from his political engagements. His leadership throughout this period has not only sustained the Liberal Party, but even given it a little life, and light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, regretfully, we can understand his desire for a less public profile, while not taking on more personal debt for another expensive leadership race, (many of the previous candidates are still working to pay off the debts incurred in those races) and should he wish to run in the election of 2015, and should the Liberal Party win enough seats even to form a minority government, Mr. Rae would, of course, play whatever role he chose in the cabinet.
But let's not move too quickly, into the future.
This country has lost another outstanding political leader, and we, as as country can ill afford to lose such men and women from the ranks of those willing to submit their names to a volatile electorate, in volatile times, under microcscopic scrutiny, in order to seek and to achieve the opportunity to serve a very undeserving public. Canada needs to place a much higher value on its public servants, especially those of the calibre of Mr. Rae, whose integrity, courage, compassion and vision have guided his political life at home and around the world, in capacities that many Canadians are not even aware he has served, helping to establish democratic governance in many countries.
The Liberal Party is stronger for his contribution, and weaker for his departure, as is the country, on both counts. This is a time to say thanks and to reflect on the meaning of his withdrawal from seeking the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, and to request both his counsel for the party's executive and any future leader, no matter who that individual might be. Speculation on that race is for another day; today, it is time to mourn Mr. Rae's legitimate and honourable decision, and recognize the party and the country are in his debt.