Skip to main content
q & a

LIberal candidate Bob Rae at an Ottawa press conference on April 19, 2011.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Bob Rae could tell Jack Layton a thing or two about orange waves.

As Ontario NDP leader in 1990, he rode an unprecedented tide of support right into the premier's office.

With six days left before election day, one of the big questions of this campaign is whether the federal NDP surge in Quebec will jump the Ottawa River. So far, it hasn't happened. All these years later, some question whether Bob Rae's tumultuous five years as an NDP premier could be what's holding Jack back.

Now in his 11th campaign, Mr. Rae is largely a low-profile Ontario road warrior, door-knocking with Liberal candidates in well-known electoral hot spots. As one might expect, he strongly dismisses any suggestion that he's a drag on the competition.

"Frankly, you can write that down if you want, but I just think it's bullshit," Mr. Rae said in an interview Monday. "After 20 years? I still have a very strong level of support across the province personally, and I don't see that as a factor in terms of the NDP situation overall. I do think that's a bit of a stretch."

But others say Mr. Rae's five years in office might be why Ontarians are reluctant to get solidly behind the federal NDP Leader.

"I'm not sure what else could explain why the NDP numbers aren't up in Ontario," said pollster Nik Nanos. "I think it's completely fair to say that part of the NDP brand in Ontario relates to the experience of the NDP provincial government."

This election could have been the ultimate test of Mr. Rae's political legacy. He was in a close leadership race in late 2008 when - in the flurry of postelection events over a failed coalition with the NDP - Mr. Rae pulled out, leaving Michael Ignatieff as Liberal Party Leader by default.

Mr. Nanos said all parties must deal with "legacy" issues of their predecessors, whether provincially or federally. In B.C. and the Prairies, where the NDP has governed with success, he said that's not much of a problem. It's definitely not an issue in Quebec. But in Ontario, people still remember the Rae government's struggles to deal with the recession of the early 1990s - most famously through the use of unpaid "Rae days" for public servants.

NDP campaign director Brad Lavigne dismisses any suggestion that his party isn't rising in Ontario. He notes that the Liberals are trying to save "what once were safe Liberal seats" by featuring former prime minister Jean Chrétien this week in Toronto.

As for Mr. Rae's analysis of the NDP's surprising numbers in Quebec, he said the NDP is "not well organized" so it remains to be seen whether those numbers will translate into seats.

"To me, it's an interesting phenomenon as a Canadian to see the Bloc [Québécois]kind of stranglehold on 35 to 40 per cent of the voters appears to be loosening," he said. "Obviously, I'd much prefer it came to the Liberal Party."

Having campaigned in many close ridings, Mr. Rae said the polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Where the Liberals have a history in a riding and a strong candidate, he said the party is doing very well on the ground in terms of fundraising and volunteers and will win votes from the NDP.

"I do think the strategic voting issue is very high on people's minds. Much more so than perhaps people realize," he said.

Mr. Rae is also an interesting figure now because he was there, 26 years ago, at a largely forgotten moment in history. It was in 1985 that Mr. Rae, as leader of the third-place NDP, signed a four-page "accord" with the second-place Ontario Liberals to defeat the first-place Tories shortly after an election.

Mr. Rae said now is not the time to talk about whether that provides a blueprint for what could happen this year. He declined to speculate, as Mr. Ignatieff has during the campaign, about possible minority Parliament scenarios.

"Until we know what the arithmetic is and what the numbers are on May 2, it's literally idle speculation, and we've just got to move on," he said. "I've got people to convince."