Bob Rae weighs in

The interim leader of the federal Liberal Party was on campus Wednesday and spoke about the current state of liberalism

On Wednesday, Bob Rae, the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, stopped on campus for a talk with students and community members.

He spoke on topics including the history of liberalism and Dalton McGuinty’s recent resignation. He also held an open question and answer period with attendees after his speech. Approximately 140 people were at the talk in Dupuis Hall.

Rae, who was announced as the interim leader for the Liberal Party of Canada in 2011, was first elected to the House of Commons in 1978 as a New Democratic Party (NDP) MP.

He made a switch to provincial politics and in 1981, was announced as the leader of the Ontario NDP. He was subsequently elected Premier of Ontario in 1990.

“Provincial politics is much more granular, much more local and you’re dealing with issues and with people much more directly,” he told the Journal. “Federal politics is a little more abstract and a bit more removed from hand-to-hand combat, so it’s a little different that way.”

As Premier, Rae’s government established a Royal Commission on Learning which reviewed the state of education in Ontario.

In 1995, a report from the Commission recommended reforms such as establishing standardized testing for students at certain grade levels and cutting high school from five years to four. Many of these recommendations were acted upon, with the creation of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing system in 1995 and the eventual abolishment of grade 13.

In 2005, Rae was commissioned by the Ontario government to write a report on post-secondary education in the province. In the report, he recommended a $1.3 billion increase in funding for Ontario universities, colleges and trade schools.

Before he left Kingston, Rae spoke with the Journal about his education policies and the future of the Liberal Party.

If you could pick one major reform to make to post-secondary education, what would it be?

I think there is still unfinished work in higher education in Canada [in terms of] charting out a seamless path for students. We still don’t have a close enough connection between colleges and universities and we have to reconnect those institutions and that isn’t happening.

In 2005, you wrote in a report that each post-secondary institution should be able to determine its own tuition. Do you still believe this to be true?

Yes I do. I do think people have to make the distinction between what the nominal tuition rate is and the real rate of tuition is. The only way we are going to allow [universities] to move forward is to give them greater freedom in tuition. The government needs a stronger mandate for lower income students. The two go together. We have become so fixated on having a common level of tuition that we fail to recognize the need for universities to differentiate themselves. We need to understand that it’s not a nominal rate of tuition. It’s the real rate of tuition and that depends on the level and degree of financial aid — that’s what we have to focus our time and attention on.

Queen’s and other Canadian universities have been dropping in international rankings. From your perspective do you think this will have an effect on post-secondary education in Canada?

I don’t think it’s so much we’re in decline; I think it’s more we’re not keeping pace with what’s happening around the world. I really do think it’s a global business today. We’ve got to think globally. It really means the government of Canada and the provincial government needs to understand that other countries are doing a lot for their universities and are doing it more quickly. If we want to succeed, we’ll have to do
even more.

In 1995, a report commissioned by your government recommended the cancellation of grade 13, which eventually was put into place. How do you think this has impacted secondary education in Ontario?

Ontario having a mandatory fifth year was very much the exception in Canada. The goal was to bring Ontario in line with other provinces in Canada. In some cases, it means students coming to university younger, which has its pros and cons. It also gives kids the option of taking a gap year. But in my view, it was a necessary decision because it made more sense for us to have the ability to give kids an opportunity to get through high school more quickly if they want to. One of the realities is to make the system more flexible to fit student needs. Some students want to do a variety of different things and we had to change it to four years.

You’ve worked in labour law in the past. What are your thoughts on the current situation with Ontario teachers?

I’ve always felt that negotiated solutions are better if you can get there. Sometimes it’s just not possible but you hope it will be possible.

What is the first thing the new Party leader should change about the Party, once
they’re elected?

I think the new Party leader will have to take a firm control of all dimensions of the caucus and party organization, and I don’t mean control in a dictatorship control. The fact is the leaders, the office and the caucus operations and the operations of the party need to be working together. It’s a kind of reality that I’ve been encouraging.

Do you think Justin Trudeau has enough experience to be the Liberal leader?

I was the leader of a party when I was 33, which is eight years younger than Justin Trudeau, so I’m not about to say somebody who has been in Parliament and had his experience is not ready to do the job. I think Mr. Trudeau is a fine candidate and I think he’s well qualified, but there will be other candidates and other people coming forward. But I don’t want to seem to be endorsing one candidate or another.

What are your thoughts on Dalton McGuinty stepping down and proroguing the legislature?

He made the decision some time ago. He came to the feeling that there was a time and place for everything. If he didn’t take charge of that decision, it would leak out and people would advise him to go or stay longer. There would be more public speculation rather than doing it the way he did, which was swiftly and quickly.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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