Liberal Leader Bob Rae joined Globe readers online on July 29 to take questions on current political issues, how much disclosure political leaders owe the public on their personal health issues, famine relief in the Horn of Africa and other topics.
Ryan MacDonald: Hi everyone. I'm Ryan MacDonald, The Globe's political editor, and I'm joining you from Ottawa. Today we're pleased to be joined by Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who is here to talk about a range of issues, beginning with the famine that has struck the Horn of Africa -- and the world's response.
We're also here to tackle some current political issues. Jack Layton's announcement this week that he is temporarily stepping down as Opposition Leader because of another bout with cancer continues to reverberate among Canadians and inside the NDP. Don't be shy about seeking Mr. Rae's perspective on this and any other political issue you feel strongly about.
I'll start us off. Mr. Rae, you said earlier this week that it is important to consider the Canada's Somali community as we respond with the rest of the world to the famine -- going so far as to say a special envoy should be considered. At this point, the Canadian government has committed funds -- $50-million in addition to the $22.3-million that CIDA has already provided in humanitarian assistance, as well as matching donations by Canadians. Is this the right approach? What is your impression of Canada's response thus far?
Bob Rae: I think the response needs to go deeper, and take more advantage of the diaspora community here, which is large, and has continuing and strong ties to Somalia. the idea of a special envoy is a good one, as it gives the issue more profile and the famine is not only a humanitarian tragedy - it also has political causes, and potentially, solutions
Reader Steve M.: Hello Bob, I really wish more could be done to reduce the suffering of people in Africa (and elsewhere); I think most Canadians share a similar concern. I just can't get around the suspicion that my money (whether through direct donations or tax dollars) is not actually getting to the people in need (and going to corrupt regimes and thereby actually worsening the situation).
How do we get around this barrier (which may be equal parts "real" and "psychological") so that there is a more universal appetite to increase aid?
Bob Rae: I actually believe very strongly that in this situation that perception is more psychological than real. The World Food Programme is reputable and efficient in these kinds of situations, and other relief organizations have an equally strong record.
The real problem is that many agencies can't get to where the heart of famine is in Somalia, and ends [up]helping those who can get to a refugee camp in Kenya or Mogadishu. This is the real frustration. People on the edge of starvation don't have the energy to walk far.
From a reader: With global warming likely to cause more frequent and severe droughts in the future, do you see a sustainable solution to any future catastrophe's like the famine/drought in Somalia?
Bob Rae: You're right to focus on climate change as leading to more environmental and food challenges, but it speaks to the need for better irrigation, more efficient uses of water, but both these require governments that can actually provide leadership and investment.
The lack of an effective government able to engage in long-term improvement of infrastructure is a huge problem. That's why I say "drought is created by nature, but famine is created by people". We can't stop droughts but we can stop famines. It isn't easy but it can be done.
Ryan MacDonald: We've got lots of topics that readers are eager to tackle, Mr. Rae, so let's take one more broad question on the situation in Somalia. Reader Jason Stone asks: How can Canada take a lead role in Africa?
Bob Rae: The first thing is for our government to get over the notion that somehow Africa is less important to us than it was, and that we should be focusing most of our energies elsewhere.
The fact is Canada has a long and deep history in many parts of Africa, and we shouldn't walk away from that. This humanitarian and educational commitment is now matched by considerable economic interest from Canadian resource and infrastructure companies, which is even more reason for us to be there.
I would re-engage with Africa, and keep working on the underlying issues of deep poverty, lousy governance, and ethnic violence. These issues will not go away, and they are at the root of the current famine in the horn of Africa. And we should be consistent, as opposed to the "on-again, off-again" approach we've been taking.
Ryan MacDonald : We'll switch topics now to Jack Layton and the NDP. Pat asks: Considering the recent announcement, how do you feel this reflects politics in Canada as becoming leader-driven as opposed to party-driven?
Bob Rae: Well that would come as news to John A Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. Politics in most countries is affected by leadership, and this is not a new or recent phenomenon. Parties and ideas matter too, of course, but people vote for people.
Reader Sylvia Ray: What do you think will be the practical effect of Jack Layton's leave of absence?
Bob Rae: I'm still reluctant to get into a political commentary on Jack's health. My sense is right now it's the summer, and there is a huge and entirely appropriate wave of sympathy for Jack. We all want him to get well.
Ryan MacDonald: Well, perhaps, more broadly on the topic of health then, The Globe's Andre Picard, recently tackled the issue of public disclosure. It has trigged a great debate among readers. On the subject of health, how is yours Mr. Rae? Do politicians owe the public full disclosure?
Bob Rae: I think the interest is bigger in the media than it is in the general public. My health is good, thanks, Ryan, I had an aneurysm on my aorta fixed a few years ago and feel right as rain (it is raining at the cottage as I write).
I disclosed that illness when I went into hospital, and went down rapids with Rick Mercer a few weeks later. I think those of us in public life should tell people if they're unwell or unable to carry on, just as Jack did on Monday. Everyone who watched him make the announcement understood it was serious, but I don't think Jack needed to go into details of his diagnosis or his treatment.
He's unwell, he needs to take a leave, his party has appointed an interim leader, and everyone wishes Jack well. I think he's disclosed what he has to disclose. And I don't think the Canadian public feels it needs to know more than that. Reporters might feel that way but I'm not sure that view is widely or deeply shared by the public.
Ryan MacDonald: Glad to hear. Reader Ash Nagrani would like to hear your thoughts on the government's move to publish a list of "most wanted" war crimes suspects. Is this something Canada should be doing?
Bob Rae: The problem I have is the accuracy or otherwise of the information that is the basis of naming someone a war criminal. It's obviously reputationally devastating to have that label applied to someone, so it's important to be absolutely certain of the information and evidence before publishing someone's name.
Reader Jim: Hello Mr. Rae - In an effort to minimize the likelihood of a terror attack do you feel that Canada should be more selective when deciding which countries citizens should be allowed to come to Canada as immigrants or refugees?
Bob Rae: Refugee claims are based on one criteria only, and that is the probablity that the person claiming such status faces a realistic threat in the country from which he or she is fleeing.
And the point system is supposed to ensure a general fairness in who gets in as an immigrant. I wouldn't favour applying other criteria, as its effect would be too discriminatory. And let's not forget that both refugee and immigrant applications are supposed to be reviewed by CSIS for security concerns.
There is a legitimate concern about immigrants and even second-generation citizens getting caught up in the political and religious struggles of their home countries and even falling prey to extremist influences, but as we've seen recently in Norway the risks of extremism are not at all confined to immigrants. The Air India review that I did in 2005 convinced me that pockets of extremism can grow up quickly in Canada, as elsewhere, and that being able to diagnose this problem quickly and deal with it effectively is an important challenge for public policy.
Reader Stan L: Given the economic predicament that US now finds itself in... what do you think the Canadian government can do to protect or help particularily vulnerable industry (i.e. manufacturing/retail)?
Reader Doug: Hi Bob: The news from the US is deeply depressing these days and I wonder what your thoughts are on how Canada may need to prepare for a new US depression. The markets are nervous and job growth is slowing in both countries.
Bob Rae: I still think we need a stronger strategy for manufacturing in Canada. The high dollar is very tough on exports, and we've definitely seen a slowdown over the last few months. I really hope the US Congress can resolve this immediate man-made debt crisis, and get the focus back on the underlying issues in the economy. I'd like to see a strategy that focuses on infrastructure (not gazebos), innovation, and education. And a more creative tax system. I hope the Liberal Party will address these issues strongly in its renewal.
Reader Mark Anttila: With Dalton McGuinty pushing for a new ten-year federal-provincial deal on health care, I'd like to know what you think that deal should look like. Thank you.
Bob Rae: I think it's a great idea, and the two big issues that need to be addressed are home care and the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. These are going to be critical issues, as well as human resources, and information technology.
Don't let the so-called e-health "scandal" take our minds off the need to bring our system well into the 21st century. The financial sustainabliity of health care is going to require a continuing commitment to innovation.
Reader Michael: How do we, as Canadians, start talking and thinking about the North seriously - in economic terms, governance terms (e.g. FN self-government) and even national identity terms. Right now, the North is largely misunderstood and as a result, huge potential is lost.
Bob Rae: Economically northern Canada is becoming increasingly important - and we need to continue to work on the governance and environmental issues that are so crucial. The population base is small, as you know, but the potential of these communities is huge. It is, as you say, an important part of our identity. But we have to make good on the potential - and not see it only in military or defence terms. I'll be visiting NWT this summer and will continue to raise these issues.
Ryan MacDonald: We're just about to wrap up our discussion with Mr. Rae. Let's take two more questions. First, this from Sushil: How can Canada play a role in the UN to make it a stronger institution that goes back to its roots in defending liberalism and stopping genocide?
Bob Rae: I think the main reason we lost the Security Council vote is precisely because many countries no longer saw us as a country that took the underlying goals and objectives of the UN seriously. Nothing this government has done since then would change that perspective. We need the same spirit of leadership that gave us the Land Mines Treaty and the International Criminal Court. This work is ongoing, and we have to get back in the game.
Reader Tom: Governments worldwide seem to be in an economic state requiring cutbacks. Examples are the US and Britain. How do you see the federal government needing to restore balanced budgets and how would you go about it?
Bob Rae: The key to achieving balanced budget is economic growth, fiscal discilpine on the spending side, and a recognition that a steady revenue stream is not a "river of evil". We did it before, and it can be done again, but we shouldn't lost sight of any of these three key elements. My main concern right now is that all the focus is on cutbacks, and not on the other two realities. Canada and the US succeeded in the 1990's because of the three key elements, and we should never lose sight of that.
Ryan MacDonald: And that's a wrap.
Mr. Rae, you may be at the cottage and it may be raining, but I think it's fair to say our readers have given you your intellectual swim for the day -- it was a broad and invigorating discussion. Sincere thanks to you for taking part.
And thank you to everyone who took time today to participate.
Bob Rae: Much appreciated and happy to engage with your readers. I wrote a little blog today on the U.S. fiscal and political crisis and some lessons for Canadians, which your readers can read on my Facebook site or liberal.ca site - many thanks and be well.