Liberals to spend summer rebuilding

The federal Liberals are working hard this summer to rebuild the party, which is already thriving in the wake of a disastrous May 2 election result, interim leader Bob Rae, the interim leader says.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says the party is alive and well and attracting new members as it rebuilds after a disastrous election. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Liberals are working hard this summer to rebuild the party, which is already thriving in the wake of a disastrous May 2 election result, interim Leader Bob Rae says.

"The party is alive and well and we have work to do," Rae said at a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa. "But we have, I think, shown a great capacity to do that work and we're looking forward to it."

The Toronto MP replaced Michael Ignatieff as leader following his resignation the day after the election left the Liberals with just 34 seats in the House of Commons. Rae was chosen to head the party until a leadership convention is held in 2013.

With no threat of an election hanging over them now that the Conservatives have a majority government, the Liberals say they want to take their time to choose a permanent leader and repair the damaged party.

"We as a party have an opportunity to do some renovation, which needs to be done and that's exactly what the party has asked me to do and what I think the public expects," Rae told reporters. "I don't expect people to be sitting on the edge of their seats but I just want everyone to know that we're moving forward."

Engaging Canadians online and on the road

Among the rebuilding efforts by the Liberals is a new website designed to engage people at the grassroots level that the party says will allow party members to connect, organize and help recruit new members and donors.

The party held a fundraising drive last month to back the new website and surpassed the $100,000 target, raising more than $150,000 in just four days, according to Rae. He said the success shows there is a lot of life in the party.

In a letter to Liberals on June 23, Rae said the party needs to rebuild to attract new people, and the use of digital media will be key.

But Rae says he'll hit the road so he can connect with Canadians offline and in person as well. He plans to visit every province and northern Canada. Last summer, Ignatieff attended hundreds of public events during a cross-Canada bus tour and continued the road trip theme right up until the spring election.

Rae said it's part of the job for leaders to travel the country during the summer and that he will stress during his travels that Liberals understand "the nature of the defeat and the hit that we took in the last election." He'll be listening but also talking, telling Canadians the party is still "alive and well" and where it stands on important issues such as health care, said Rae.

Liberal MPs will also be holding news conferences throughout the summer, he said.

The interim leader showed confidence when talking about the future of his party, mentioning that fundraising and membership numbers are on their way up and that the party is in good financial shape. Rae also said being in third place in the House of Commons will not stop the Liberals from making a comeback.

Both victories and defeats in politics are temporary, he said, and being in third place doesn't mean you're far from power, he said.

"Change will come and it will come again and that's the nature of the political cycle, that's the nature of the political process," he said.

"Anybody who tells me the Liberal party can't win the next election is just whistling in the wind. Of course we can. Absolutely we can. Will we? I don't know. But can we? Absolutely," he said.

The next election is years away, however, and Rae will not be leading the Liberals next time voters go to the polls. A new leader will be chosen sometime between March and June of 2013.

Policies and party unity key to effective rebuilding

Part of the rebuilding process involves working towards a policy convention that will be held in January 2012, Rae said. He named health care and the Conservatives' law-and-order agenda as examples of policy areas the Liberals will be talking more about.

"I think we have to much more successfully identify the issues and identify the approaches that people can connect to and people can relate to. I think those issues will become clearer as we go forward," he said.

Rae said the Conservatives' tough-on-crime approach is taking Canada down the wrong path and is "completely out to lunch."

The Conservatives' plan to package a number of crime-related pieces of legislation into one bill that will be front and centre in the fall session of Parliament.

Before Parliament resumes, Liberals will regroup in Ottawa at the end of the summer for a caucus meeting. Rae acknowledged the party has some internal issues to work on in addition to engaging Canadians and drawing them back to the Liberal party.

He said he doesn't feel a sense of division in the party caused by the May 2 election results but that there are still "some lingering questions" about what went wrong.

The interim leader said it's important to listen to complaints and concerns but that Liberals must look forward and figure out how to build a stronger party.

Rae added that he doesn't shy away from debates within the party, and that differences of opinion are healthy.

"As long as we all realize that at the end of the day we've got to come together as a disciplined, organized fighting force which is what a political party has to learn how to be," he said. "We're not just a debating society. At some point we have to recognize that we're in a tough fight with two other parties and we have to show real discipline and capacity to deal with that," said Rae.