MONTEBELLO, Que. - Interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae exhorted his party to turn its eyes westward Wednesday even as the country was consumed with navel gazing over the never-ending Quebec sovereignty question.
Liberals had been positioning themselves as the party of national unity in anticipation of Tuesday's Parti Quebecois election victory in Quebec, but Rae pitched a far more pan-Canadian message as the 35 MPs and 40 Liberal senators sat down for their fall planning session.
In a clear effort to spread his embattled party's federalist credentials beyond the rancorous old French-English divide, Rae used Alberta's olive branch on a national energy policy to pillory Prime Minister Stephen Harper's long-standing reticence toward first ministers' meetings.
Harper has met with the premiers en masse only twice since coming to office in 2006, and has indicated he intends to keep it that way.
Rae likened Harper's attitude to actor Clint Eastwood's much-lampooned address at the Republican convention last week, where Eastwood rambled on at length to an empty chair.
'Imagine a prime minister in any other jurisdiction saying, 'I will not meet with the leaders of the federation as a matter of principle.' It's ridiculous. What, are you going to have 11 empty chairs?" Rae said to laughter.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford has spoken of the need for a national energy strategy, an idea to which the Conservative government appears cold, Rae noted.
"Wake up, Canadians!" he almost shouted.
"You have the premier of the largest energy-producing province in the country who says she wants to be part of a national dialogue. And the prime minister of the country, who comes from the same province as she does, says 'I don't know what she's talking about.'
"Well, why don't you pick up the phone, Mr. Harper? Who do you think you are, Clint Eastwood?"
Rae made an impassioned pitch for a west-to-east pipeline, using the argument about "ethical oil" to question why Central Canada, by inference, is forced to consume "unethical" foreign oil.
"See this as a national project," Rae said of his west-east pipeline pitch. "We're not building pipelines, my friend, we're building a country. It's called Canada."
And Liberals, it is clear, need to rebuild a party. A new poll suggests they have much work to do in every corner of Canada.
The latest Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey put Liberal support at 22 per cent nationally, well back of the New Democrats at 29 per cent and the Conservatives leading with 33 per cent. What's more, the poll suggests the Liberals did not enjoy a plurality of support in any survey region save downtown Toronto's 416 area code.
The telephone poll of 2,008 respondents suggests the Grits trail the first-place Tories by a full 10 points in Ontario, are sitting third in B.C. and Quebec and are 15 points back of the first-place New Democrats in Atlantic Canada.
The national survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times in 20. Regional error margins are larger, due to the smaller sample size.
With the Liberals poised to begin a winter-long leadership race, Rae chose to highlight the party's positives.
He said the federal party currently has a "substantial financial surplus" and that it has signed up 20,000 new "supporters" — a new, non-paying class of membership — even before the leadership organizations fire up.
And Rae road-tested a Liberal line that political observers can expect to hear ad nauseam over the coming months, placing his party in the political centre between the "polarized" options of the Harper Conservatives and Tom Mulcair's NDP.
"Canadians don't really want to be forced into making a choice between the Tea Party and the occupier movement," Rae said to great hilarity and applause from the Liberal faithful.