As the federal Liberals gather for their summer caucus in Montebello, Que., interim leader Bob Rae sat down Tuesday with The Huffington Post Canada's Althia Raj to talk about the impending results of the Quebec election and the party's upcoming leadership race. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: If the Liberals lose, what does it mean for Mr. Charest?
A: We’ll see what happens when the election is over, but it is just one of these tougher parts about Quebec politics. Every time a Liberal government is defeated and is replaced by a separatist government, you then have the issue of national unity and business confidence in Quebec and Canada. All sorts of issues are raised and become part of the limelight and that is just something we have to deal with. I would urge Quebecers to vote for a federalist party and hope that that is exactly what happens.
Q: Would you say that the CAQ, Coalition Avenir Québec, is a federalist party?
A: It certainly has a number of federalists in it. It is a unique Quebec party where I think that there has been an agreement among all the members of the party that the sovereignty question, the issue of breaking up the country, will be put off for a period of time — they won’t focus on those issues. And there are a number of people who have been active in the federal Liberal party who are either candidates or actively involved in the campaign. Certainly, I know Mr. Charest well and we’ve worked closely together, on a couple of referenda and other issues, so I’m a big, big supporter of Mr. Charest.
Q: If the Liberals are defeated would you see it as a problem with the Liberal brand?
A: No. I think again, it is part of a turn of events, no provincial government gets elected every time and no political party gets elected every time, so I wouldn’t read that much into it.
Q: If the PQ forms government in Quebec, do you think another referendum is a certainty?
A: I think it will depend on a number of factors. First of all, I think Mme. Marois is going to encounter a very powerful opposition to the idea of another referendum from a significant number of Quebecers. I think it would be a foolish person who would ignore that opinion. I am one of those people who think that if the people of Quebec give the PQ a government, a number of people inside that party will see it as this is what they were elected to do, this is their objective, this is what they are going to figure out a way to do. I think it would be tragic for the country and for Quebec to put itself through another referendum. It would make absolutely no sense to me.
Q: Do you think Prime Minister Stephen Harper should negotiate with Mme Marois?
A: I don’t think that Mr. Harper should give away the store. I don’t think he has the authority or the mandate to do that from the people of Canada. I think as a matter of principle the prime minister needs to talk to every province about the governance of the country, but it is clear in my mind that Mme. Marois has a very different set of objectives and Mr. Harper has no mandate to abandon federal authority, none whatsoever.
Q: And if he offers every other province the right to regulate employment insurance for example?
A: He has no mandate to do it for one province over another province. He has no mandate to break up our social safety net. That’s what I am saying, he has no mandate to break up federal authority. I think the social safety net is weak enough in this country without Mr. Harper breaking it up even more.
Q: Do you think Canadians care about separation the way they used to?
A: I think people are human and I think it is a human emotion to say, ‘I have less patience for this than I did at some other time.’ But the reality is this is not something that you can ever afford to be impatient about. The national government needs to have a national strategy. There has to be national leadership. If we are in the middle of a very challenging situation there has to be a way for the prime minister to show leadership and for the rest of us to say, what can we do to help? How can we be constructive, helpful to get to where we need to get to? But it is not something where we can afford to be the least bit indifferent about as a country.
The problem is when you are dealing with someone like Mme Marois, she makes it very clear that her objective is the breakup of the country, and it is not about control over EI or culture. That is not the objective at all, those are just points along a map which for her has just one destination. There is no deal that will satisfy Mme Marois. Or the PQ. None.
Q: Do you think Prime Minister Harper is capable of fighting Mme Marois?
A: He has some challenges, he doesn’t have the greatest team together but that is why he does have to show a leadership to talk to other parties and leaders and candidates and see how to fashion a response, because we can't afford to let this thing drift or pretend it is not a problem.
Q: If Marois is elected premier Tuesday evening, how does that change the dynamics of the Liberal leadership race?
A: I think what it does is it will bring back into focus once again the issue of unity and the issue of leadership and how to deal with the unity issue.
Q: Do you think it would benefit candidates who are from Quebec?
A: Not necessarily. Some of our more effective prime ministers on dealing with the unity file, like Mr. Pearson for example, were from Ontario and outside of Quebec, so I don’t see that as the litmus test. I do think though that we will have candidates from across the country who are running and people’s ability to deal with that question effectively will be a matter of importance.
Q: We’re already getting indications NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will take the opportunity [of a PQ win] to raise the federalist flag in Quebec. Where does that leave you? How much leeway do you have to react?
A: I have been active in constitutional and national politics since the 1970s, so I obviously come at it with a lot of experience. I’m not quite sure where Mr. Mulcair will be adding so much to the debate.
I haven’t heard hide nor hair of him or any of his colleagues in terms of the debate going on in Quebec. From their opposition to the Clarity Act to a number of other things, I think that the position of the NDP will frankly be more vulnerable if there were to [be] a PQ victory.
Q: Mr. Mulcair has already said he plans to spend the next two years defining his party and the Conservatives. Will the Liberals be squeezed out in an increasingly polarized debate?
A: The last thing this country needs is to be forced into making a choice between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. I have no doubt that Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair will be spending a lot of time writing cartoons of each other and doing everything they can to try to destroy each other’s credibility. Most Canadians feel very strongly that they want to see solutions to problems, that they want to see practical approaches to problems, they don't want to be forced to be making ideological choices.
Q: How does the Liberal Party intend to deal with Liberal MPs who decide to join the leadership race? Will they lose their critic portfolios?
A: I intend to discuss with caucus how people feel about that. My own view is that it is bit exaggerated to say that people can’t play or shouldn’t play a role in the House of Commons because they are running for leadership. My own view is sometimes we perhaps have erred a little bit too much on one side or the other side, saying you have to take a leave, you have to leave your critic portfolio.
There are some positions in the House where you obviously make it more difficult for people to run for candidate because you have to be in the House but my inclination is not to be as draconian as some. I am much more relaxed about that. I also think we are a smaller caucus, we need all hands on deck, we want to have everybody participating and engaging in the campaign.
Q: Will you be encouraging MPs to declare their leadership intentions sooner rather than later?
A: Nope, I'll be encouraging people in the party who are MPs and who are not MPs, I'll be encouraging a number of different people to think about running ... I think we need a strong race and it will be healthy for the party to have a number of good candidates so I'm hoping that is what will happen.
Q: Any regrets you bowed out of the leadership race?