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Rae rallies Liberals with effervescent defence of his NDP record

Bob Rae gave a spirited defence of his tenure as Ontario's NDP premier 20 years ago, describing himself to his Liberal caucus as a "piker" compared to the way in which Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty are spending money now.

It was a strange way to launch a Liberal winter caucus. But not so strange for those who suspect Mr. Rae, the Interim Leader, is considering a bid to become the permanent chief next year.

Speaking without notes and for more than 45 minutes, Mr. Rae gave an animated and tough speech as he tried to boost up his Liberals, who he acknowledged experienced the worst drubbing of their lives last May. The caucus was reduced to 34 MPs and third-party status in the federal election.

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Mr. Rae noted Wednesday the caucus has never been so united and resilient and he joked that it is even growing – "by 3 per cent in more than one day." The quip, which drew some laughs, was a reference to the defection Tuesday of Quebec New Democrat Lise St.-Denis to the Liberal ranks.

He also noted that in this difficult year for Liberals they still managed to raise more money than ever before. In December, he said, Grits raised more than $1-million in what he characterized as the "most successful email campaign ever in the history of the party."

"That says something," Mr. Rae added. (Liberals have consistently fallen behind the Conservatives, who are masters of raising money from thousands of individual donors.)

However, a sure sign of Liberal success, Mr. Rae said, is that Tories are starting to take "more and more pot shots" at the party and at "yours truly."

"I want to take just a few seconds of time to say that perhaps in the past we didn't respond to the attacks but let me just respond very directly to the attacks I've seen in the last couple of days," Mr. Rae said. (Conservatives launched effective pre-writ attacks on his predecessors Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff and it's believed the Liberal failure to respond contributed to the devastation at the polls.)

Mr. Rae then proceeded to defend his record as premier during what he called the "worst recession since the Depression."

"I don't think I was solely responsible," he said. "No sector was spared in Ontario. One might have said I chose the timing of which to become premier and perhaps in a rather unorthodox way ... [but] it's not whether you face difficult and tough time, it's how you respond to those tough times."

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Admitting the deficit and debt were high, Mr. Rae noted that in his four budgets he increased spending by 15 per cent. Compare this to Mr. Flaherty's first four budgets as federal Finance Minister, he said, in which program spending has increased by close to 40 per cent.

"I was a piker compared to Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper. Better a Rae day than a Harper lifetime."

The caucus loved it, giving him sustained applause as he attacked former Ontario premier Mike Harris's team, who he said are now toiling under the Prime Minister.

"So if Mr. Harper and his friends want to start attacking me, I say 'Fine. You attack me I attack you right back.' That's exactly what you're going to get from the Liberal Party of Canada," he said.

He even brought up the age issue, making no apologies for the fact he's been around for a long time. That has been a criticism of his potential leadership – that at 63 years of age he hardly represents generational change.

But experience is important, he said Wednesday. "I think it's important for us to learn from our lessons and say 'Yeah, we've learned how to do things better, ... we've learned how to make change, we've learned how to make things happen.'"

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That's leadership, he argued.

Taking apart the Conservative agenda issue by issue, Mr. Rae attacked the government's tough-on-crime legislation as its "jail agenda."

He argued that more aboriginal Canadians will be behind bars as a result of the new laws than ever before. As for its environmental policies, he ripped into Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver for issuing an open letter warning against "radical groups" who are opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"The Conservatives have clearly said anyone who questions the pace or the place of any economic development whatsoever, of any exploitation of any resource by whatever means, is somehow not only an enemy of the progress, an enemy of prosperity, but now even an enemy of the state," he said.

Although the House is still on its Christmas break, Liberal MPs and senators are in Ottawa for caucus meetings in advance of their biennial policy convention, in which they will be electing a new party president but not a new leader. The leadership vote will take place in the spring of 2013.

Regardless, Mr. Rae, said that he was "proud" to be leader "however briefly."

We shall see.

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