Bob Rae remembers Rae Days.
How could he forget? It was the early 1990s, he was the New Democratic premier of Ontario and the province was mired in a deep recession.
Rae’s newly-elected NDP government came up with a way to limit provincial spending: it asked government employees to voluntarily take one day off per week, so it wouldn’t have to pay them.
“We had lost a lot of jobs in the private sector and we faced a major revenue crunch at the provincial level,” Rae, 58, said Tuesday from Vancouver, his latest stop on a whirlwind cross-country political campaign.
“After experiencing this for awhile, we decided we had to address the impact on the province and the provincial budget,” he said.
“We faced the challenge. Most of how the province spends its money is on salaries in the public sector.
“We had a choice. We could either lay people off in large numbers, or we could ask people to take days off without pay.
“After a long period of discussion, I felt that was a fairer way for us to proceed, that if we simply went ahead with mass dismissals we would have wound up in worse shape than we did.
“So we gave people time off without pay. Those days quickly became known as Rae Days.”
Now, Rae is seeking the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and, ultimately, the office on Parliament Hill currently inhabited by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
About 4,300 Liberal delegates elected by party commissions from across the country — such as regional youth and women’s directorates — will vote at the party’s December 3 leadership convention in Montreal.
Rae has the declared support of 20.3 per cent of those elected delegates, second only to Michael Ignatieff’s 30.2 per cent.
“I don’t think anybody is going to run away with it on a first ballot, so it’s going to be a multi-balloted affair; that’s very clear,” said Rae.
“Obviously, we’ll need the support of candidates on the second and third ballots.
“That’s the name of the game as this thing gets fought out.”
Ignatieff, who visited Whitehorse in August, has the endorsement of Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.
Leadership candidate and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden also visited the territory in August.
But that doesn’t mean Rae has no Yukon support.
Three of the 14 elected Yukon delegates declared their support for him.
The Yukon also has about 20 ex-officio Liberal delegates who are not required to declare their support.
“Obviously the support of a Member of Parliament is great to have, and certainly Larry is somebody who everybody knows and respects, but ultimately it’s the delegates who decide,” said Rae.
“We’ve done well in the Yukon. We’ve got a few delegates.”
Rae was in the Yukon before, back when Tony Penikett was a fellow NDP premier.
He toured Kluane National Park with his family, and is pondering another Yukon visit towards the end of his campaign.
“It’s a matter of finding the time and finding the days.
“Certainly if I can, I will.”
Even though he doesn’t have a seat in the House of Commons — as leadership candidates Ignatieff, Dryden, Joe Volpe, Stephane Dion and Scott Brison do — Rae likes his chances.
“(Jean) Chretien didn’t have a seat when he was elected (as leader) in 1990,” he said.
“I’ve been elected eight times, federally and provincially.
“I know the parliamentary system very well, and people know that.
“I don’t think that will prove to be an issue at the convention.”
He held a Toronto seat in the House of Commons from 1978 to 1981, during which the Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa fell on a non-confidence motion Rae introduced.
He was elected leader of the Ontario NDP in 1982 and won power at Queen’s Park in 1988.
However, Rae has never been elected as a Liberal.
He was a Liberal in 1968, though, when he attended the leadership convention that elected Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that he joined the NDP.
After his NDP government lost in Toronto in 1995, and Rae resigned as leader in 1996, he wrote two books — The Three Questions and From Protest to Power.
“The NDP is far more a party of protest than a party of power,” he said.
“The major shift that most other social-democratic parties have taken in the course of the last 25 years the NDP has not taken.
“I find its attitude to enterprise, to change, to business, to the economy to, frankly, be very reactionary and not forward-thinking.
“The responsibilities of governing are not something they are interested in.
“They are much more interested in being a party of protest.
“Governing brings with it its own responsibility, and to be serious about politics you have to be serious about wanting to govern.
“I find that, at its core, the NDP has not made that transition and has not come to grips with that.
“It’s one of its central weaknesses as a party.
“And on the economy I think it has been unable to make this shift to understanding the importance of job creation and having an enterprising economy that is at the heart of what we do as a country.”
Rae quit the NDP in 1998, upon his appointment from then-prime minister Chretien to the national Security Intelligence Review Committee.
After almost 10 years of working as a mediator for Ottawa at home and abroad, Rae is aiming to supplant the Conservatives who are “attempting to take us down paths that do not reflect our strengths or speak to our most pressing challenges,” as he wrote in Maclean’s magazine.
Still, Rae isn’t as hard-core a lefty as some.
He is not opposed to Alberta-style privatization of health-care services, for instance.
“I think that if people decide they want to take responsibility for their own health-care and go to a private health clinic, that’s their business,” he said.
“I don’t think you can ban private medicine in Canada. I don’t think that’s an intelligent solution.
“It’s a decision for provinces to make.
“The one thing that is clear is that the provincial government or the public sector should not be subsidizing private care.”
Notwithstanding private medicine, Rae’s legacy in Ontario is undeniably one of left-wing politics.
Beyond question, Rae Days involved government intervention into the economy.
“Some people remember them fondly,” he recalled.
“Some people remember them not so fondly, but it is a fact of life that when you are in government you have to make hard decisions.
“I think on the whole most people understand the context in which we made those decisions, and the name of the game was fairness.”