Rae rallies Liberal caucus to rethink, rebuild

Liberals are ruling out a merger with the NDP as the party tries to rebuild and redefine itself after May's historic electoral losses.

Liberals reprise 'jobs jobs jobs' refrain to counter Conservatives on the economy

Liberal Leader Bob Rae delivers his speech at the Liberal Summer Caucus on Parliament Hill on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal Liberal caucus had nearly four months to lick its electoral wounds and come to terms with its new role as the third party in the House of Commons.

But as Liberals gathered on Parliament Hill for a summer caucus retreat to figure out what they need to change for the future, they fell back on a familiar mantra to focus their message for the fall Parliamentary session.

"The message is not cuts, cuts, cuts. It's jobs, jobs, jobs," Rae told the room full of MPs, Senators and past Liberal candidates, quoting a sound bite previously associated with former prime minister Jean Chrétien's strategy for slumping economic times.

"We have to have growth," Rae said, criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approach to managing budgetary deficits. "The Conservative mantra takes us on a forced march to austerity. Liberals are talking about something different."

Beyond planning fresh partisan attacks on the governing Conservatives, the annual summer caucus retreat will be necessarily preoccupied with growing the party's own political fortunes. 

Although Parliament returned for a few weeks in June, the session was so brief the Liberals didn't even finish switching offices with the now-Official Opposition New Democrats.

That office move finally happened Monday as MPs gathered to hear Rae's keynote speech and figure out what they need to do both on and off Parliament Hill.

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Rae spent the summer on the barbecue circuit talking to the party's grassroots. Speaking to reporters ahead of his speech, Rae tried to put a positive advance spin on the party's circumstances.

"The one word that I come away from is resilience," Rae said on his way into the gathering. "There's a tremendous feeling of wanting to come back ... not a lot of grousing, not a lot of complaining, but a lot of people talking about the future." 

In his speech, Rae told the caucus that everywhere he went this summer, people told him not to give up, because they were still interested in the Liberals' message, even if they didn't vote Liberal on May 2.

The interim leader, who had a tumultuous run as a provincial NDP leader and premier in Ontario two decades ago, reminded Liberals that he knows what it's like to go from third to first, and then first to third, in a three-party system.

"The biggest mistake we can make is by overreading the election results of May 2nd. We don't want to underestimate them, but don't overread them," Rae cautioned. 

Just as he doesn't want the Liberals to read too much into last spring's election, Rae accused the prime minister of overreading his current mandate, making the mistake of "thinking somehow the people of Canada have gone through some massive personality change and have all become members of the Tea Party," accusing the Conservatives of adopting right-wing policies popular with some American voters.

"Pride cometh before a fall, Mr. Harper. These laws apply to you as much as they do and have done to us," Rae warned, noting the Liberals' own fall from power.

In addition to this week's caucus retreat, the Liberals are also launching new features on the party's website, including what the party calls a "Twitter-inspired conversation space" party supporters and MPs can use for networking and discussing issues.

Earlier this summer, the party made a fundraising push to raise funds earmarked for improving its online communications. A press release said more than 1,000 donors gave over $150,000 to fund the improvements.

Back to basics

In a departure from past summer caucus retreats, failed Liberal candidates from the last election were invited to contribute to the discussion.

Several Liberals noted the need for a back-to-basics approach to revitalizing the party.

"This party has to get a lot closer to its members, to its ridings, to the people who have spent all of these last many years working close to the grassroots," former candidate and national director Steven MacKinnon suggested.

"I think we have to ask ourselves some tough questions … the kinds of questions that are very existential."


What should the Liberals focus on at their summer caucus?

Top of mind for several: a more modern approach to fundraising.

"We have traditionally been very successful at the old-fashioned kind of fundraising where you hold big events and you encourage donors to make large contributions and to a certain extent that continues," deputy leader Ralph Goodale explained. "But we have to do a lot better at the smaller repeat donor."

"You have to be able to identify that donor and go out and ask them in a persuasive way and give them a good cause, a good reason. Not just 'support the party,' but 'this is what we're working on, we need your help.' If you give them that kind of compelling argument by and large Liberal donors will respond to that," Goodale said.

Despite changes to party fundraising rules, Goodale expressed confidence that the Liberals can adapt.

"We've done the post-mortem on the election. There were a lot of things that went sideways," Goodale acknowledged.

"Most especially, we allowed our leader to be carpet-bombed for two and a half years with $10 million of negative attack ads to which we were not in a position to respond. We've got to make sure that never happens again," Goodale vowed. "We were coming from a long way back."

In his speech, Rae openly acknowledged the past mistakes of not aggressively responding to Conservative attacks on former leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

"They're not going to do it again," Rae vowed during his speech. "Not on my watch."

No desire for NDP merger

As the Liberal Party moves forward, there appears to be little appetite for discussing a merger with the now-second place NDP.

"People are free to talk about whatever they want to talk about but it's not on my agenda at the moment," Rae told reporters.

"The NDP did not come out of the Liberal Party. It's always been a completely independent movement," defeated MP Marlene Jennings said. "I think if there's a merger we should be possibly looking at the Green Party. On the environment we have a lot of similarities."

On policy, the Liberals need to balance short-term considerations for the fall parliamentary session with the longer-term need to redefine the party's positions.

Goodale, a former finance minister, emphasized the need for a strong economic message for the party to deliver in the short term.

"Canadians are caught in the economic troubles that affect the whole world and Canadian families," he said. "The middle class are under a huge amount of pressure and they want to know how they'll be defended against that onslaught."

Veteran New Brunswick MP Dominic Leblanc told Saturday's edition of The House on CBC Radio that he thinks the Conservatives are focusing on justice issues to distract from their mistakes on the economy and other shortcomings. 

"Every time the government was in trouble on ethical questions, around G8 and G20 spending around ministers' ethical lapses, they would introduce yet another criminal justice measure, and thump their chests and hold a news conference in front of a police stations and jails," LeBlanc suggested. "So we've got to be careful that it doesn't become a substitute for a discussion about economic policy."

LeBlanc identified a dual challenge for the Liberals: holding the Harper government to account this fall, while also focusing on renewal. "We need to recognize as a Parliamentary caucus that a great deal of our work certainly in the first half of a majority Parliament should be in the regions of the country," he told guest host Chris Hall.

In his keynote speech, Rae highlighted several policy areas where the party could contrast its vision with the government's priorities. He also engaged in some self-deprecating humour about the Liberals' recent troubles.

"You say that the Liberal Party doesn't have simple solutions. We do have simple solutions. If we change the name of the wheat board to the Royal Canadian Wheat Board ... if we change the name of the CBC to the Royal Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ... if we do these things the Conservative will have no choice but to stand up and defend them."  

Rae's speech got more serious when he spoke of the need for the party to embrace substantive changes, calling for a new attitude and a new organizational structure focused on the party's membership and supporters.

While the devil may be in the details of the specific changes, at least some of those in the room were in agreement with Rae's assessment that things have to change.

"The Liberal party is actually the party of reform," former national director MacKinnon insisted. "We're the party that challenges the status quo, and does so inside a very large Canadian consensus."

"The majority government gave Liberals finally an opportunity to concentrate on doing what we need to do to focus on [making] the party relevant in the 21st century," former MP Jennings said. 

Jennings identified party communications and the Liberals' top-heavy organization as key challenges.

"I'm questioning the need for having provincial wings. I question the need for having commissions," she said. "I'm hopeful because a lot of people seem to be on the same page."