Rae touts signs of Liberal party’s revival on eve of convention

Bob Rae says rumours of the federal Liberal party’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

OTTAWA — Bob Rae says rumours of the federal Liberal party’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The interim Liberal leader sees plenty of signs the once-mighty party is bouncing back eight months after being handed its worst drubbing in Canadian history.

The party raised more money from the general public last year — about $9.5 million — despite being reduced to a third-party rump in the May 2 election.

That includes more than $1 million raised in December alone in what Rae describes as the most successful email campaign ever undertaken by the party.

He says party membership has grown and, as of Tuesday, the Liberal caucus has grown, too, with the addition of Quebec MP Lise St-Denis, who defected from the NDP.

As well, Rae says a record number of Liberals — some 2,600 so far, with more expected — have registered to attend a three-day convention later this week, which will begin plotting the party’s comeback.

Rae says that’s more than the number of delegates who attended the last NDP and Conservative conventions combined.

“It’s been a long climb since May 2,” Rae told a Liberal caucus retreat Wednesday.

“Following a difficult election and a difficult defeat, our party did something that many people did not expect and did not think that we could do. One could read the obituaries on a regular basis in the papers from those days.”

Since the election, Rae said Liberals “have shown that we can work together, that the Liberal idea is a deeply resilient idea. We’ve shown that the Liberal movement is strong and we’ve shown that the Liberal party is united as never before.”

This weekend’s convention is the first step in the arduous task of modernizing, streamlining and restructuring the party.

Delegates will be asked to support proposals aimed at ensuring the party’s long-term survival, including setting aside a “strong start” cash reserve that could be used to promote and defend the next permanent Liberal leader from the kind of relentless Tory attack ads that hobbled the last two leaders, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, before they got out of the gate.

Since May, the Tories have largely concentrated their fire on the NDP, which supplanted the Liberals as official Opposition. But they’ve recently begun going after Rae and his record of racking up debt and increasing spending during a turbulent term as NDP premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995, when the province was sunk in a crippling recession.

Rae said he takes the “pot shots” as another sign of the Liberals’ revival. And he offered a spirited and lengthy defence of his record as premier, which some observers took as a sign that Rae intends to run to become the Liberals’ permanent leader, despite having explicitly promised not to do so as a condition of being named to the interim role.

“Listen up, Mr. Harper. While spending in Ontario increased by about 15 per cent under the Rae government over four budgets, (Finance Minister) Jim Flaherty’s first four budgets increased program spending in Canada by close to 40 per cent. So I was a piker compared to Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper,” Rae said.

There’s likely to be much talk among delegates to this weekend’s convention about whether Rae should be allowed to seek the permanent leadership in a contest slated for the spring of 2013. However, the matter is only peripherally on the agenda and will not be resolved at the convention.

It’s up to the party’s 33-member national executive to decide whether to lift its prohibition on the interim leader going after the permanent post. Convention delegates will elect eight new executive members, including party president, who will eventually have a say in the matter.

The five presidential candidates are in agreement that Rae should be not be barred from running, although he would have to step down as interim leader once the contest gets under way.

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