No federal by-election has held greater portent for the nation’s politics than the current race in Toronto Centre.
There are six candidates, but it’s all about Bob Rae, who, in all likelihood will be sent to Ottawa on March 17 to sit as a Liberal in the House of Commons and, perhaps, to serve as Liberal leader and PM once we’re past the painful tenure of Stéphane Dion.
But while it’s a celebratory occasion for progressive Liberals, a profound dilemma faces social democrats watching even an energetic leader like Jack Layton languish on the margins. Many can’t avoid the looming question: could the Liberal party, encumbered by corporate ties but led by a sophisticated, urban-sensitive ex-social dem, do more for progressive causes in Ottawa than the stalled NDP?
Like any wise candidate, Rae claims not to be taking his gargantuan lead for granted. When I meet him at his campaign headquarters at Bloor and Sherbourne on a Friday afternoon, he tells me he’s a full-time candidate, having left the practice of law. “I guess you could say I’m unemployed,” he says. “No, a volunteer,” he corrects himself.
Currently, he’s in the service of Dion, whose unsmiling and uninspiring visage adorns the wall near the front door. But there’s an even bigger MPP George Smitherman sign from last fall’s provincial campaign in a prominent spot near the entrance, an indication of which association counts for more in this riding, which stretches from old-monied Rosedale south through Regent Park to the lake, bounded by Avenue Road and Yonge on the west and the Don River on the east.
In the 2006 election, federal Liberal MP Bill Graham swept the riding with 30,000 votes, one reason this race has received so little ink. More importantly, though, it has been overshadowed by the goings-on in the nation’s capital, where federal politics has become a soap opera starring an over-confident Conservative PM more likely to be brought down by his own character flaws than by the flat-footed official opposition.
The Tory government, Rae declares in characteristically crisp tones, “is a Republican farm team trapped in an ideology. There would be nothing worse for the country than a Stephen Harper majority.”
So why, I ask, if the Harper government is so bad, did Rae argue against Liberal caucus members who want an election ASAP?
“Calling an election is like losing your virginity,” he says. “You can only do it once. We should call an election when we have a clear chance of winning, when we have a reason that makes sense to the people.”
I compliment him on his honesty in acknowledging that the Libs are holding off on the assumption of defeat. “I didn’t say that,” he interjects. I look up from my notepad, waiting, but he says, “Continue with your question.”
What, I wonder, does his party have to do to get back its rhythm as the natural governing party of the centre.
The challenge, he replies, is to connect with voters. “As a party we can do that, but all the elements have to be in place. The Liberal party has to become a green party, and Mr. Dion represents that more than anyone else.”
Eighty per cent of what his Green party by-election opponent talks, Rae says, is already Liberal policy.
For his old party, on the other hand, Rae has few kind words, especially on matters financial.
“The NDP is probably less economically intelligible than the CCF was in the 1950s. It’s just astonishing how they have not moved at all.”
But there is one issue on which the NDP is cogent and on which Rae’s party is decidedly not. What exactly is your position on the Afghanistan commitment? I ask.
“I think it’s quite clear,” he says, embarking on an uncharacteristically convoluted answer that begins with a history lesson on the 30-year Afghanistan civil war.
Rae then invokes the recommendations of Conservative-appointed Liberal John Manley on a rebalancing of the mission to make it less military-oriented and more focused on peacekeeping and security.
But the chief of defence staff, the country’s top soldier, says it’s inevitable that there will be a lot more shooting and that it’s naive to think otherwise, I point out to Rae.
“We have a lot of respect for General (Rick) Hillier, but I am running for Parliament and I think the mission’s future has to be decided by Parliament,” he says pointedly.
Strange, then, considering that the NDP has staked so much on its position – bring the troops home and redeploy as a UN peacemaking and development mission – that party chief Layton has made himself scarce in Toronto Centre. NDP candidate El-Farouk Khaki, a gay activist and immigration lawyer busy holding down his day job while campaigning, tells me he’s been trying to get the leader in for some canvassing.
But as inviting a target as the Liberals’ Afghanistan position is, there are land mines for the NDP. If he stays away from the campaign, Layton won’t be blamed for what is likely to be a disappointing result.
From all appearances, Khaki is less concerned with the unbeatable Rae than he is with the Greens, who in Chris Tindal have a experienced, full-time candidate. (He ran in the riding in the 2006 general election and got 3,000 votes to NDPer Michael Shapcott’s 14,000.)
It is Tindal, not Rae, whom Khaki mentions first when I ask him about his opponents.“Chris likes to show he has support from across the spectrum. But voters have to make a choice about who expresses their views the best.”
Tindal, meanwhile, claims to be doing politics differently. “We’re not campaigning against any one person,” he tells me in his Parliament Street campaign office. He’s urging voters to make history by electing him.
It won’t happen this time. Nor will it happen for Conservatives, who got 10,000 votes in the last election and whose candidate this time is Don Meredith, a reverend known for his campaign against gun violence who is running on a law-and-order platform designed to appeal to middle-class Cabbagetown and crime-weary areas such as Regent Park.
Within weeks, Rae will represent a riding with NDP MP Olivia Chow his neighbour on the west and Layton on the east.
Whether the NDP likes it or not, Bob’s coming, and so are the difficult choices.