Bob Rae knows Ontario politics. He's experienced the highs and the lows, the provincial and the federal. He's even been on the inside of both the NDP and the Liberals.
In this campaign - his 11th - the former NDP premier is largely an Ontario road warrior, door-knocking with Liberal candidates in the well-known electoral hot spots of southern Ontario. That means trips west down the 401 to help out in London and Kitchener. It also means walking the suburban streets east of Toronto in Ajax-Pickering, where the Conservatives are campaigning hard to unseat Liberal attack dog Mark Holland.
Mr. Rae is also an interesting figure now because he was there - 26 years ago - at a largely forgotten moment in history that could become very relevant in eight days. 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. So much has been said about coalitions in this campaign, but virtually none about accords; the difference being that only one party governs under an accord, but the policy agenda is agreed upon in advance by a second party in exchange for its support. A coalition - which Mr. Rae unsuccessfully pushed for in 1985 - involves cabinet seats for both parties.
Below is an edited version of a telephone interview Monday with Mr. Rae.
Q: Do you have a role in this campaign, beyond your own riding?
A: Yeah, I've been doing a lot of visits to ridings at their request. I've been pretty much all over southern Ontario in the campaign. Today, I'm just coming back from a trip to London where I spoke to all three ridings and did some media events in London. I've done the same thing in Kitchener. I had breakfast in Ancaster last week. I was up in Oshawa-Whitby and Ajax-Pickering and Scarborough-Rouge River on Saturday. Pretty much getting around. I've been in Ottawa a few times. I've been doing quite a bit in Ontario, but not just in Ontario. I've been out in the rest of the country as well and I'm going down to the Maritimes on Wednesday for a couple of days.
Q: And how is that different from the last campaign? If I remember, you went out with Stéphane Dion for a week or so?
A: Yeah, the last campaign I did a bit more with Mr. Dion. This campaign I'm doing a bit more, kind of bucking up the troops, talking to local candidates, doing some fundraisers for candidates, helping them to raise money and talking to canvassers and talking to local media. That's pretty much what I've been doing. I've spent quite a bit of time in my own riding. I've got two all candidates [debates]this week ... I've been helping the candidates in Toronto as well, you know, Mr. [Ken]Dryden, Mr. [Joe]Volpe.
Q: Ontario is a little bit hard to read because we haven't seen the NDP numbers jump like they have in Quebec. Polls had the Liberals and Tories very close midway through the race, but now there seems to be some space. It's very much regional races. Starting overall and then we'll get into the regions, is there any kind of theme that you're picking up in Ontario?
A: My sense is there's still everything to play for in this last week. Our local campaigns report - I've seen it myself - very much strong on the ground, good money coming in. Good sign campaigns. Good morale among troops and some very competitive races and some very strong local efforts. So my own sense is the polls have to be taken with a grain of salt at this point. I've never seen so many of them ... It just seems to be all over the place.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about Kitchener and London being very tight races. It sounds like you've been there a few times.
A: I think they're intensely competitive races. The Kitchener races are very tight. We've got great local campaigns ... I really do think that this is the week of decision and people who think the election is in the bag one way or the other are just mistaken. The NDP support is frankly, harder to read. I've obviously been talking to our local candidates the last few days as to whether they're picking up any particular signs of a surge. I have to say that we don't seem to be seeing that ... I think where the Liberal is seen as the stronger chance to beat [Conservative Leader Stephen]Harper, I do think strategic voting will play a role. And the Greens are much weaker than before. If you look at the last election, the Greens were running a little stronger, Liberals stayed home - even though Mr. Dion ran a very progressive campaign, it didn't have a lot of appeal to actual voters who would naturally spring between us and the NDP. Mr. Ignatieff's campaign is very focused in terms of his platform. I think the platform gets a good response from voters. I do think the strategic voting issue is very high on people's minds. Much more so than perhaps people realize, and that also speaks to the poll issue, because while people may identify themselves as in a particular party, that doesn't necessarily mean that's how they're actually going to cast their ballot when they get into the booth.
Q: I don't know if this is something anybody would ever talk to you about, but you sometimes hear the theory that the NDP is not going up in Ontario because there's still people who weren't happy with your provincial government.
A: Frankly, you can write that down if you want, but I just think it's bullshit. 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.
Q: So was any part of you happy for the NDP to see them jump ahead of the Bloc Québécois in the poll numbers in Quebec?
A: To me, it's an interesting phenomenon as a Canadian to see the Bloc, kinda stranglehold, on 35-40 per cent of the voters appears to be loosening. We'll just have to see what happens on election day. Obviously I'd much prefer it came to the Liberal party. Quite frankly, I think the NDP in Quebec is not well-organized. They have a lot of candidates who, if you actually start really looking at what they stand for, it's a pretty odd hodgepodge of people. We'll see to what extent any of this stuff translates and how it translates into seats.
Q: There was a lot of talk about coalitions in the campaign. Mr. Ignatieff ruled out that option. But there's been virtually no talk about an accord, which is something you've got experience with going back to the 1985 deal. Do you think we should be familiarizing ourselves with that sequence of events?
A: You know, I don't really think it's necessary. My own sense of this is that it's not a great idea to spend a whole lot of time hypothesizing in the last two weeks of the campaign as to what might happen. I think the historical examples are there not only from Canada but around the world. And I think Mr. Harper's attempts to re-write the Canadian constitution need to be challenged. But there'll be lots of time for discussion about that after May 2. I'm personally not spending any time talking about that or even thinking about it, because I think it's a classic case of 'you just don't know.' Q: You do have the party leaders talking about it.
A: If they want to talk about it, they can go ahead. I'm not going to join them. My own view is that what happens after May 2, we'll talk about it after May 2. From my point of view, it's important to focus on getting Liberals elected and that's got to be our focus.
Q: It's interesting when you go back to those stories from 1985, there's a lot of similar lines. Mr. Miller had said it was not constitutionally legitimate, but then he didn't end up challenging it in court. You're hearing some of those same lines again.
A: I'm not going to change my answer. In another time zone, I'll be glad to talk about all the various permutations and combinations, but right now it's just pure speculation. And 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. I've got people to convince. I'm not going to spend my time talking to them about what might or might not happen. I think it's important to talk about what the choices are in the election campaign.
Q: Do you have concerns that Mr. Ignatieff went down that road a few times?
A: No comment on that at all.
Q: Besides your role helping out individual campaigns, do you have any involvement nationally? Do you talk to Mr. Ignatieff?
A: I've talked to Mr. Ignatieff. I've talked to him just before. Obviously I saw him on Saturday, but the short answer to your question is 'no.' Q: You don't have a formal title or anything?
A: No. Absolutely not.
Q: Campaigner for hire?
A: Campaigner for hire (laughs). Exactly. Have election, will travel.