Nearly five years ago I wrote in this column: "If a member of Canada's Liberal Party awoke this week from a 20-year coma to find Bob Rae as a serious contender for the party's leadership, he or she probably would conclude the following: Rae has come to his political senses, or the party has lost its collective mind."
Well, here we are five years later and Bob Rae, the former New Democratic Party (NDP) premier of Ontario, is indeed leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and some observers would say those comatose Liberals might as well go lights out for another long spell before Rae, or any other Liberal, becomes prime minister.
Rae is the son of a respected Canadian diplomat, Rhodes scholar, labour lawyer, star MP in the NDP caucus in Ottawa, and, in a stunning surprise victory in 1990, head of the first government formed by a socialist party in Canada's most powerful province.
Now, thanks largely to the inability of his former college roommate Michael Ignatieff to win the hearts and votes of many Canadians in the May 2 election, the job of leader of the party that dominated the country for the 20th century falls to Rae. Unfortunately for Rae, his frat buddy has left him to clean up a party that can fairly be described as in a shambles, and, if you believe some commentators, on the verge of extinction. (Which reminds us, what ever happened to the American Whig party?)
The Liberals hold 34 seats in the 308-seat Parliament, making them the third party behind the NDP's 103 (59 of which are in Quebec), and the Conservatives majority contingent of 166.
Rae, who finished third in the leadership contest mentioned in the beginning, behind Ignatieff and winner Stephane Dion — who lasted one election that netted the Liberals 77 seats — offered himself as interim leader and agreed to two conditions: He would not run for the leadership (at a convention targeted for 2013), and he would not seek a merger with the NDP.
So, barring a not-inconceivable change in this pact or some other unforeseeable circumstance, Bob Rae, who turns 63 next month, is not likely to become prime minister of Canada.
Regardless, Rae has taken up the challenge of rebuilding a party that has suffered big defeats before and bounced back, but never from the position of third party status with the NDP threatening to supplant its historic role as the centre-left alternative to the Conservative party.
The irony is not lost on Rae, who was at one time the federal NDP's golden hope to break the lock the Liberals held on power or official opposition status. His new office on Parliament Hill is even the same one occupied by his former leader when he was an NDP MP in Ottawa.
Now he's battling his old socialist soul-mates to keep the Liberals he once detested in the game.
To that end, this week Rae headed out on a cross-Canada tour to touch base with the grass roots of the party, starting in the Maritime provinces, where, except for New Brunswick, the Liberals held on to most of their base.
Rae notes in a blog that he is no stranger to analyzing and rebuilding things. He was a public policy Mr. Fix-it when he took time out from elected politics in 1996. He was hired to restructure the Canadian Red Cross and Toronto Symphony, and headed inquiries into the Air India bombing, education policies, native issues, foreign trade and federalism.
Besides his credentials as a public servant, "Bob the Rebuilder," as one cheeky reporter dubbed him, has another advantage in his quest to make the Liberals a contender for government again: time. A stable Conservative majority regime in place means there is not going to be a federal election until 2015.
So it's off to the summer barbeque circuit for Rae on the long road to save the once-mighty Liberals, and his view, the country.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.