After 15 years and a recession, Bob Rae finally has his day

Feb 11, 2009 04:30 AM


A prophet is without honour in his own land, the good book tells us. And he who laughs last, a less sacred source once said, laughs best.

These days, Bob Rae must be chuckling at both axioms.

The man who became a pariah to many in Ontario for inventing Rae Days during his incarnation as NDP premier would have noticed a sentence in U.S. President Barack Obama's inaugural address that others might have missed.

As much as government can do, Obama said, getting through tough times depends on the attitude of individuals, for example "the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose a job."

Doubtless, Rae will have noted that last Friday in California, thanks to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's battle with a budget shortfall, state workers began taking what are called Furlough Fridays, staying home two days a month to reduce payroll.

Fifteen years on, what Rae came up with during the recession that rocked Ontario while he was in office has apparently become fashionable.

Back then, the so-called Social Contract prompted a fight so intense with former labour allies that it marked the beginning of the end of Rae's days as a New Democrat.

Something in him snapped, he said in his memoirs, at "the lack of perspective, the lack of solidarity, the absence of any sense of responsibility for the financial (and political) health of the government."

So, as Canada is rocked by a new economic downturn, Rae wrote with no small pleasure recently in another newspaper that Harper Holidays or Flaherty Fridays might soon take their place in the political lexicon.

"As the song says," he wrote, "everything old is new again."

In Ontario, the reality Rae faced was that most of what government spends is on public-sector salaries and benefits. "It only seemed reasonable to ask public-sector workers to share in the solution," he wrote.

If he had simply slashed budgets, tens of thousands of workers many of them women and minorities without the protection of seniority would have been laid off, he said. So the deal was simple. "More job security in exchange for Rae Days."

To date, the Ontario public sector has not been asked to do the kind of sharing Obama praised and Rae and Schwarzenegger implemented.

In December, in a so-called restraint measure of laughable leniency, back when he thought he had only a $500 million deficit, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced a public-sector hiring freeze and capped annual salary increases for politicians and senior bureaucrats at 1.5 per cent.

PC Leader John Tory called it a fraud. NDP Leader Howard Hampton called it "cynical symbolism."

Last week, in an interview with the Star, it seemed Premier Dalton McGuinty was suggesting more significant public-sector restraint perhaps including what would surely become known as Dalton Days was in the offing.

"We have a responsibility to look at our own house, obviously," he said. "We established some aggressive savings targets in the past. We'll have to find a way to speak to those again."

But the next day, Duncan was trotted out to say that, when it comes to Dalton Days, "we will not be doing anything like that."

For now, anyway. For as Rae said in his memoir, "there is no way to deal with a problem of this dimension without dealing with public-sector wages and compensation. Either large-scale layoffs or changes in public salaries or both are inevitable."

And to end with another axiom, there is no substitute for experience.


Jim Coyle's provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.





Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

Bob Rae's leadership during the last recession showed Bob Rae made some very unpopular decisions that were the right decision. And that speaks volumes for Bob Rae's Integrity and his commitment to serving the people of Ontario. I despise the NDP leadership but we have yet to see Bob Rae coming up with the Layton anti-equal parenting muck.