On Bob Rae's last day, much admiration and respect — even from John Baird

Bob Rae gets a standing ovation
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae pauses while receiving a standing ovation during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 27, 2013. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

The House of Commons on Thursday takes a two-week Easter break. And when it resumes on April 15, there will be new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. On Wednesday, the fellow who has been the interim Liberal Leader had his last day in Question Period in that position. That fellow, of course, is Bob Rae, the member for Toronto Centre and a politician who, I think it is safe to say, has the respect of just about everyone — journalists, partisans, NGOs, you name it — on Parliament Hill. He certainly had mine.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Question Period, praised Rae’s “tenacity, patriotism and intellect” as he answered a question from the interim leader.

After Question Period, there were some tributes in the House to Rae. I quite liked this one, from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Baird, of course, was an Ontario Progressive Conservative who opposed Rae’s Ontario New Democrats and became a federal Conservative MP who opposed Rae’s federal Liberals. Still ..

Hon. John Baird (Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to offer remarks on behalf of the Prime Minister and my colleagues in the government caucus to pay tribute to the member for Toronto Centre as he steps down as leader of the Liberal Party.

The member for Toronto Centre will not know this, but about 20 years ago, I was thinking about running for the Ontario legislature. There were two people who especially motivated me. One was Mike Harris and the other was the member opposite. Now I affectionately refer to him as my former premier and I can also say, assuming one of the more fiscally responsible premiers in my lifetime in my province.

His obvious intellect, capacity to think on his feet and speak extemporaneously raised the level of debate in this place. The central role he has played in debate each and every day in this place will be greatly missed.

While I often do not agree with the member oppositee — we call those days weekdays — I have come to respect him, to seek his counsel and to learn from his perspective. Therefore, it is a real honour for me to join in paying tribute to the member for Toronto Centre.

A fierce partisan, a skilled debater, he is one of those rare members of the House who not only commands respect of both colleagues and opponents, but also of past generations of parliamentarians, as well as though now sitting.

With a long political career, dating back to 1978, the hon. member has served with such elder statesmen as John Diefenbaker, Allan J. MacEachen and Stanley Knowles. He served with them and no doubt sparred with them, for as a parliamentarian, he was an ever-armed opponent. I must say that in part I blame that old lion of the Prairies, the Right Hon. John George Diefenbaker.

The member for Toronto Centre served with Diefenbaker and he will no doubt recall this conversation. Shortly after his first election to the House, Mr. Diefenbaker, already impressed, asked to see him. “You’re making quite a name for yourself”, he said. “Let me give you some advice”. If hon. members can believe this 35 years later, the member, who was then known as the member for Broadview, replied “I need all the help I can get, sir”.

So Dief gave him some advice. He said: “Some people will tell you to take your time, to sit back and wait your turn. My advice is don’t take any nonsense from anybody”.

Unfortunately, he followed Dief’s advice and it was the old progressive conservative party and the other parties that faced the music.

However, provincial politics called. These were the days of hard campaigning. From October 1978 to November 1982, the hon. member fought four elections. In the course of his long career he would fight seven more. In Ontario, he took a party with a deeply ingrained opposition mentality and brought it to power. Many people were surprised at his evolution from protest to power and, by his own account, not least the member opposite.

When his party was unable to grasp the difference between protest and power he wisely shifted to the right, not far enough, however, but he did shift to the right. There are at least two or three members opposite who I wish he had brought to the right with him.

Indeed, there are not many politicians who could start a speech like he did one night last fall. He started out his speech: “My fellow red Tories, my fellow New Democrats, my fellow Liberals”.

In a more serious vein, today allows us the opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. member’s entire family. As he has often joked, he was born in a log embassy. What is no joke is the service to Canada performed by the hon. member’s late and distinguished father, Saul.

Saul Rae was part of Canada’s delegation to the Quebec conference back in 1943. In the pictures of Mackenzie King, Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, taken in Quebec, we can see him there. The times have shown that the same spirit of public service that made Saul Rae a valuable confidant of great men has passed in abundance to his children. It is a spirit that we all may celebrate today, regardless of party or faction.

In paying tribute to the member opposite, I would be remiss is I did not single out someone who deserves at least as much credit, if not more credit than he does. I am of course referring to his wife, Arlene.

We can see that he is always in a better mood when she is around. That is why we see her in the halls of this place so often. The member opposite is truly blessed to have someone who has been so supportive of all of his time in public service. It is fitting to recognize that the burden of public service is not borne only by those who hold office, so we pay tribute to his wife and to his three daughters, Judith, Lisa and Eleanor.

I have been privileged in my dealings with the member for Toronto Centre. While the hon. member and I have had our differences of opinion in the House, as one would expect, I found him at the same time to be forthright and insightful on the occasions when I have sought his private views.

Upon this last matter, I am utterly convinced. One could argue with the hon. member for Toronto Centre, one could disagree with him, but one could, however, never question his love for Canada, for it is deep, profound and true.


Standing Ovation for Bob Rae
MPs from all sides rise in the House of Commons to applaud Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae on his last day in the House in that position on March 27, 2013. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

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