From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics
By Bob Rae (Viking, 1996, 304 pp., $32.00)
Political autobiography is rarely a true literary effort, outlining a life lived in all its happiness and turmoil, as well as its humour and unexpected irony. These works tend toward self-justification and a perceived need to place the media mill back on its proper footing, even a wish to groom the historical record in as pleasing a light as possible.
Happily, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae avoids this selfish biographical tendency in his recent book. Instead, he spins some biographical detail into an earnestly-woven assessment of politics within the labour-NDP hold, and the rending crisis that is now commonly acknowledged. This autobiography serves as Bob Rae's contribution to the internal debate on how to prevent the further dissolution of the Canadian Left.
His less self-serving approach occasionally allows the author to endear himself to readers. It is easy to appreciate his self-effacing style, as he admits personal mistakes and party weaknesses. Rae likes irony and to some extent perceives the party's landslide election in 1990 as a joke—on the Ontario NDP.
Indeed, the whining protest party, catapulted to power and saddled with the burden of political and fiscal responsibility rather than the easy load of righteous anger, is the author's chief theme. Rae is likeable not only for his recurring humour, but also for his appreciation of family, and his apparent need to find refuge there, out of the public eye. Such an open approach to five tumultuous years capping off a political career is extremely unusual for a significant public figure.
This is not to say the book completely avoids a typically New Democrat partisanship. The usual summary criticism of the Conservatives as a "neo-con" elite is recurrent. To Rae, the right wing of society is now beholden to an ideology that banishes compassion in favour of balance sheets, and that would rather eliminate debt than systemic barriers to social inclusiveness.
The former premier lambastes the Harris government for its overriding commitment to fiscal reform, especially when it considers tax cuts at the expense of social programs. To Rae, the apparent "success" of recent government budgets has more to do with fortunately low interest rates than any policy initiatives.
Undoubtedly true to an extent, this view still ignores the horrendously perilous debt financing of current budgets. The author cannot in good socialist conscience allow that freedom from the undertow of interest rates comes along only with freedom from perpetual debt.
But Rae refuses to let this edge of his social outlook do all the cutting. Ironically and, yes, quite deliberately, his chief critique is of the traditional NDP-labour crowd who find their comfort in wearing political blinders instead of accepting a broadly peripheral vision. This was not so unmanageable or unexpected within a largely rookie caucus, according to Rae, but it was a source of angering frustration from people he felt should have known better. Ministerial scandals were the product of political naivete and ineptitude, and Peter Kormos was one of those inevitable political peacocks. Situations such as these could be handled with relative ease.
It was the attitude of people such as Bob White, Buzz Hargrove, and Julie Davis that provided real disillusionment. Their blunt withdrawal of support for the government of Bob Rae, who they believed had bought the corporate line, was devastating to the premier's morale.
Politics still key tool
The Social Contract was Rae's penultimate baby; it was the knitting together of all of his social, political, and economic ideas—picked from both the Left and the Right—into one neat little corpus that would provide a new solution to all the plagues he had known since coming into power. He was looking for a way of responsibly dealing with a burgeoning debt; controlling transfers to public agencies; protecting the long-term prospects of various health, education, and other social services; and providing a structural tie between unions and the government's ministries.
The irony here is that the initiative was seen by labour (quite correctly) as an affront to traditional collective bargaining, and the offer of partnership along sectoral lines was vociferously declined. White proposed solving government debt problems by filing for bankruptcy; Hargrove attributed his opposition to CAWs membership; and Davis faded from the party presidency.
And this issue was the heartbreaking crux for a man who still defends his legislative record as a living, breathing New Democrat. Rae remains staunch in his belief that his party, and the Canadian Left generally, must shake their angry ideology and get with the real program of responsible action if it ever wants to be reelected. This means getting in tune with the true wishes of the general constituency, rather than purveying the tired old rhetoric. Rae is not far off the mark.
But despite his admirable private commitments, Rae is convinced that politics remains the key tool for resolving social ills, and to this extent he remains an ideologue. His politics is no longer unrealistic, but his belief in what it can attain may well be. He acknowledges but does not define the "limits" of politics.
Rae remains a convinced proponent of employment equity legislation as a means to erase inequity. He believes that the quality of community must be fostered by government policy and stakes this territory out as the essential New Democrat plank, which means setting up the Tories as nothing more than uncompas-sionate fiscal reform neurotics, who will be unable to deal justly with inevitable social change.
So, unfortunately, the rhetoric is not completely dissolved. If only Rae could recognize the basis upon which he sometimes sees the practice of politics in a humorous light and finds comfort within his family, he would have reached a truer conclusion about the limitations of legislation.