Live & Learn: Bob Rae

The former NDP premier turned Liberal MP on lessons from the past and his return to public life.

Born Aug. 2, 1948, in Ottawa • Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, and politician • Music lover

I don’t have a lot of epiphany moments. The last was when I realized I wasn’t going to win the Liberal leadership. I wanted to win. The sunny side of not winning is retaining a little more freedom. I’m still relatively free to do and say what I want.

I’m looking forward to my return to public life. I’ve been out of office over 10 years. That has allowed me to reflect on issues. And, frankly, working in the private sector has been liberating. But I still hunger to deal with public issues. I’d love to serve in a government as part of a team making important decisions for the country.

My worst decision as premier of Ontario was taking too much time to really understand the impact of the recession on provincial finances. The problem got more severe as a result, and proved to be my political undoing at the time.

A lot of the left has just been left behind. Successful political parties accept the value of wealth creation and the importance of prosperity for the well-being of people. Ignoring that is a losing battle. And that’s my conclusion with the NDP, which is less and less relevant.

The Bob Rae of yesteryear might wonder what happened to his hair or waistline. But I don’t think he’d be gobsmacked by my current views or life. I’m probably more compassionate and less sure about many things than I was in the ’60s. It’s a natural progression. It’s called growing up.

Oxford taught me that there was a big difference between saying something and proving it. From an intellectual standpoint, I also learned that a lot of people were more gifted than me.

When I started working for the United Steelworkers as a young lawyer, there were 15,000 hourly employees at Stelco. Since then, there has been a terrible transformation. Competing with emerging-market labour is hard for Canadian workers to accept. The difficulty is finding an alternative.

People, wherever they live, have a right to make a living and enjoy life. We don’t have a monopoly on that. We can’t put firewalls around the country. We have to figure out how we work differently, work smarter, so nobody is left way behind.

I am not an ideologue about free trade. I believe in open markets and transparency. And if you want access to other markets, you must accept foreign access to your own. But we need intensely realistic assessments about the ways that countries, including Canada, protect themselves.

Working as a lawyer on the softwood lumber file for nearly a decade taught me there is no more protectionist body than the U.S. Senate. Try to get a Tunisian orange anywhere in the United States. It wants greater access to everybody else’s market, but it is not really prepared to open its own.

I was involved in the Iraqi constitution, but you can’t blame me for it. Exporting democracy is a very difficult thing to do. As an external adviser, you realize your role is pretty marginal. It’s delusional to think you can waltz in and write a country’s constitution. The people who remain behind when you get back on a plane are the ones who matter.

The death of my brother in 1989 was the worst curve thrown at my life. I was in Florida when my mother called to tell me that David had been hospitalized by flu. A day later she called back and said, “You’re not going to believe this, he’s got lymphoma.” It was severe and aggressive, a year and a half of great pain. He was 32 years old, president of GE Capital Canada, a real bright young kid.

A few years earlier, my wife lost her parents in a car accident. That news was also delivered by phone. I learned we’re all hanging by a thread; just one call away from you don’t know what.

The best gift I ever got, and I can’t say from whom, was being invited to play at Augusta National a few years ago. That was pretty amazing.

I read a lot of non-fiction, which I sort of have to do. But I also read detective novels. My favourite is the Kurt Wallander series by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. Every book takes place in a little town in Sweden, where there is always some great international event that connects to Wallander’s life. They are wonderfully entertaining.

My most valued possession is my piano, a lovely refurbished Steinway. I play every day. It reminds me a bit about my father, who wasn’t just a diplomat. He was a great musician. I grew up in a house of music.