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October 22, 2015

Book Review: Bob Rae's What Happened to Politics?

Reuel S. Amdur

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In his recent book What Happened to Politics? (Toronto: Simon and Schuster Canada, 2015), Bob Rae sets out to explain what has changed in the way we do politics in Canada, sort of. He also throws a lot of other stuff in. "Often-rambling" is how one reviewer put it.

He explains the decline in participation, voting in particular, by referring to preoccupation with economic uncertainty, slicing and dicing of the electorate, ignoring of matters of serious concern to baby-boomers (education, housing, hospital waiting lists), and overly slick propaganda.  A lack of honesty and substance is a turn-off.

Leadership, he explains, is ability to develop a vision and plan of action, to persuade people on these, and to take steps to make things happen. 

All this must be in the realm of what is possible at that time and place.  Sticking to ideology is a no-go.  Others might argue that “ideology” in the form of principle is important even in failure.  Mulcair has taken a strong position on the niqab that has clearly lost him support.  He is doing it with his eyes wide open.  Some of us would call that leadership.

He makes good arguments about the treatment of Aboriginals, a subject in which he has been engaged as a lawyer.  He also makes a case in his critique on “tough-on-crime.” 

While he contends, both here and in his earlier book Canada in the Balance, that local government needs more power and resources, as premier of Ontario he did nothing to alleviate the problem.  For example, he did not give municipalities the power to levy an income tax.

Rae wants to eliminate child poverty, but as premier he introduced a slew of changes to social assistance that made the plight of the poor worse. 

He also wants politicians to have respect for the views of civil servants.  In his charge as premier, the so-called layman’s medical was eliminated.  That document was the instrument by which a welfare worker could give his evaluation of a client seeking disability benefits.  This change showed disrespect for the workers and made more difficult the plight of the disabled. 

He also regrets the defeat of Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.  These documents would have made Canada even more decentralized and seriously impede the country’s ability to bring in new social programs.

Turning to the international sphere, he praises Chrétien for keeping Canada out of the Iraq war.  Perhaps he can explain, then, what Walter Natynczyk and a succession of other Canadian generals were doing there, along with a handful of Canadian troops on exchange in U.S. and British units.

Then there is the matter of Palestine.  He quite rightly criticizes the Harper government’s single-minded pro-Israel rhetoric.  He also supports Canada’s long-standing position favoring a two-state solution.  He has apparently not noticed that that train has long ago left the station.  Netanyahu has so thoroughly colonized the West Bank that there is simply no possible way of drawing boundaries for a Palestinian state. 

More generally, Rae is critical of Harper’s loud-speaker diplomacy.  No argument here.

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