One of the best things about From Protest To Power is the joy of reading Bob Rae lecture against the dangers of spending and deficits. It may be an example of an expression he often uses in the book: "Too late smart, too soon old." The phrase seems to be intended to suggest that during his five years as premier of Ontario he learned a lot.
Bob Rae has a lot of strengths. But is the ability to learn and grow one of them? Based on the evidence in this book, he seems to be sharpest when he reacts intuitively, rather than when he applies analysis. (He was one of the few politicians who recognized Mikhail Gorbachev's "inability to grow sufficiently out of his imperial roots.") Evidence of his intelligence abounds; evidence of his ability to acquire wisdom is less convincing.
Not surprisingly, coming from one of the most articulate Canadian politicians of recent times, the book is easy to read. But it is not so much well-written as cleverly written. Like the parliamentarian who refers to "the honourable member" before launching into a scathing attack, Rae continually acknowledges he has to share in the blame for his government's failures-before shifting the blame to almost everyone else in sight.
He informs us "this is not a tale with the simple message that a politician was brought down by a conspiracy of the mighty forces of evil." He immediately proceeds to describe the conspiracy in some detail:
"The business establishment was appalled at our election, and after catching its breath resolved to bring us down. The government bureaucracy at senior levels was equally determined to wait us out, and in true passive-aggressive fashion resist change. The party, both inside and outside government, had enormous difficulty overcoming the `barking dog catches the car' syndrome. And the media at once exaggerated our problems and ignored our achievements, steadily and systematically."
Whew! The business establishment, senior bureaucracy, New Democratic Party activists, and the media (acting systematically). Oliver Stone, call your agent.
Rae does acknowledge some errors of his own, mainly failing to communicate his policies, especially because he was so absorbed in trying to save the country. But at no point does he come out and plainly admit that the programs he had promised during the 1990 election that brought him to power (policies which, for that matter, he had fought for throughout his career in opposition) were impractical, unworkable, and unaffordable.
From Protest to Power opens with the Rae government's decision to backtrack on its commitment to publicly owned auto insurance. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to decisions to abandon a series of long-time NDP commitments, most dramatically (and courageously) the imposition of the Social Contract, overturning public sector collective bargaining agreements. The book provides a slow description of policy reversals, one at a time, like having a full set of teeth pulled without pain-killer. Rae acknowledges that many of his policies were mistaken, sounding a lot better in opposition than they did in practice. But at no point does he seem to wonder whether that says something about the philosophy as a whole.
One is tempted to say of Rae-as was once said of the Bourbon family-that he remembers everything and has learned nothing. Except that his memory is somewhat selective. Consider his description of the government's fiscal policy and the way it was assessed early in his term:
"Many observers in the media kept talking about how this crazed group of socialists actually believed it was possible to `spend its way out of the recession.' I had explicitly rejected just such an idea in my inaugural speech of October 1, 1990. But the impression certainly remained."
Perhaps the reason the impression remained was because the finance minister, Floyd Laughren, said he intended to do exactly that in introducing the Rae government's first budget.
Here again, Rae finds others to blame, citing the structural deficit left by the previous Liberal government. (Full disclosure: I was actively involved in David Peterson's 1985 and 1987 election campaigns, and was his principal speechwriter during his first term.) Rae does not acknowledge his own role in boosting spending while in opposition, as a result of the accord he signed with the Liberals to put them in government in 1985. And if the Liberal government-or for that matter, Bill Davis's Conservative government-had adopted more of Rae's spending proposals, the structural deficit would have been a great deal worse. I searched the book in vain for one major spending program that Rae advocated cancelling during his years in opposition. It is not to be found; nor is any acknowledgement on his part that the problems he faced when he took office were the direct result of the kind of policies he continually pushed for when he was in opposition. Too late smart, too soon old?
Rae's memory becomes especially selective when it comes to the bizarre scandals that led to a record number of resignations from his cabinet. Consider this description:
"Shelley Martel lost her cool in a conversation with a controversial municipal politician in Thunder Bay, Evelyn Dodds (later a Conservative candidate), and made some inaccurate statements about her having seen information about the billing practices of a Sudbury doctor. This created a controversy that dogged her for months, and eventually led to her decision to leave the cabinet when she faced the prospect of another cross-examination in the House on a citizen complaint about the way her ministry had handled his tax problem."
That is one way of putting it. Another is that Martel alleged that a Sudbury doctor (whom she named) had bilked the provincial government out of money, implying that she had seen confidential documents to that effect. When she was challenged on smearing a private citizen, she backed off by claiming she had lied about the doctor, creating a bizarre spectacle by taking a lie detector test to prove she lied. The subsequent citizen complaint (which finally prompted Martel's resignation) was not just about the way her ministry handled his tax grievance, but the extraordinarily intemperate way she responded in a letter to the citizen. Rae cites this case as an example of the press treating her unfairly. Most reasonable people would see it as an illustration of her treating others unfairly.
Another example of press unfairness, according to Rae:
"I was dumbfounded to learn that John Piper, my senior media advisor, had decided to pass on information about someone's criminal record to a reporter for the Toronto Sun. Since this also involved an ongoing investigation at the Grandview Correctional facility, where one of our caucus members, Will Ferguson, had been a summer worker some twenty-five years before, the opposition and the press smelled blood."
Let's look at that paragraph more closely. The "someone" whose record Piper tried to pass on to the Sun was a woman who had made allegations against Ferguson, allegations that had already caused Rae to drop Ferguson from his cabinet. Rae seems to see this as a case of his poor New Democratic government being victimized by a biased media and a bloodthirsty opposition. Most people would see it as a case of a woman who had come forward being bullied by the premier's office.
In describing the failures of his government, Rae exhibits a sense of understatement that would do proud the diaries of the lead character of Yes Minister. Look at how he describes his inability to achieve serious negotiations with public sector workers to deal with the province's fiscal problems:
"As events would prove, this hope was not to be realized. Indeed, the failure to bring around the union leadership to the need for a comprehensive and fully bargained solution led to a split with parts of the labour movement that has yet to be healed."
If anything is going to heal that split, it won't be the publication of From Protest to Power. David Frum has nicer things to say about union leaders.
According to Rae, Canada's union leaders are ungrateful:
"My thanks from the auto workers [for legislation banning the use of replacement workers] and for saving de Havilland that same autumn of 1992 was a gratuitous speech by [the Canadian Auto Workers president] Buzz Hargrove dumping on our government at the CAW council in December."
They lack judgement:
"Darryl Bean of the Public Service Alliance of Canada opined that he couldn't see any difference between us and the worst of the Conservatives. I'm not sure if this is still his view."
They have a short-term memory:
"People I had assumed would understand something of our difficulties and fully expected to show some leadership and discipline themselves had decided to placate their own unhappy memberships by joining in the general dumping on me and the government. Nobody remembered that companies and jobs were saved."
Rae's rift with organized labour is most vividly illustrated in one of the book's most publicized sections: a description of a meeting between Rae, his fellow NDP premiers (Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan and Michael Harcourt of British Columbia), and the executive of the Canadian Labour Congress. It was at this meeting that the CLC President, Bob White, urged the NDP governments to simply declare bankruptcy, to "just do like the Reichmanns.maybe pay 50 or 60 cents on the dollar." While White disputes some details (he denies the vulgarity of the comments Rae attributes to him, and claims his advice was directed at Romanow), he confirms the gist of it: rather than cut spending, the solution put forward by the leader of Canada's union movement was for governments to declare bankruptcy. Where the provinces would turn for capital and investment in the future he did not specify.
But what is extraordinary about this is not White's advice so much as what Rae failed to draw from it. If, when pressed, the head of the CLC favours a government bankruptcy, what chance is there that the union leadership would accept any reasonable compromise to reduce the fiscal burdens carried by government?
Yet Rae tried to sell the union leadership on a Social Contract, pouring tremendous energy into an impossible mission. It is not surprising that he would be embittered by the experience. What is disappointing is that he would not appear to have learned much from it. Any policy framework that would have satisfied someone who thinks government can pay off its debts at "50 or 60 cents on the dollar" would not have appealed to the broad public (not to mention potential investors). But Rae tries to convince us (and one suspects, himself) that if he had "been able to persuade the leadership of the trade union movement, and the professions, of the necessity and logic and fairness of what we needed to do, we would still be in government today." The question he does not seem to consider is, given the way the NDP government found it necessary to abandon almost all of the central promises it ran on, if "necessity and logic and fairness" had been the key factors, would they have been in government in the first place?
So much for what Rae learned from governing. What did he learn from his election defeat?
Reading the final chapter of From Protest to Power, the easy read hits some bumpy waters during a critique of the current Conservative government in Ontario, when one comes upon the phrase "people will realize over time that you can't get something for nothing." This coming from Bob Rae? It sounds more like a warning from Paul Martin. I had to read the paragraph over a couple of times to realize that what he seems to be saying is that the Conservative government's tax cut is the "something" people can't get for "nothing". Or perhaps he means that the services provided by government are the "something" they can't get for "nothing".
But no evidence is cited that taxpayers want or expect something for nothing. The lesson of the 1995 election was (or should have been) that taxpayers do not believe the "something" they receive from government matches up to the "something" they pay in taxes. And that is not just a measure of efficiency. Voters question whether government should play as big a role as it does in their lives. More than anything else, the Social Contract was an attempt to keep the public sector as big as possible and affordable, rather than the right size to do the job people expect of it. In that respect, the Social Contract is the perfect symbol of the Rae government: the more government the better. Too late smart, too soon old.
Allan Golombek is a Toronto speechwriter and communications consultant.