Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae was in a fighting mood Wednesday, vowing to defend himself against attacks by the Conservatives and encouraging his MPs to be proud of their party's record.
In an energetic speech to his caucus on Parliament Hill, Rae said the road to renewal after last May's election hasn't been an easy one, but that the party is already showing signs of success that include landmark fundraising efforts and membership drives.
He said the Liberals raised more in 2011 than in any other year — the year the party experienced the worst election result in its history — and that attacks against him as a leader and the party by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are another sign of Liberal success.
The interim leader said that in the past the party hadn't always responded effectively to attacks against them, and he now wanted to answer the Conservatives directly.
Defends record as Ontario premier
He went on to outline his record as NDP premier of Ontario in the 1990s, something that is often pointed to by Conservatives when they respond to Rae in question period.
Rae said he governed during a difficult time when the province faced its worst recession since the Great Depression, leaving him to make difficult and unpopular decisions. Nevertheless, he said, his government made positive contributions during that difficult time and he makes no apologies for them.
"If Mr. Harper and his friends, they want to start attacking me, I say fine. You attack me, I attack you right back. That's exactly what you're going to get from the Liberal Party of Canada," he said.
"I say better a Rae Day than a Harper lifetime."
Later in the day when speaking to reporters, Rae said if people take shots at him he is going to defend himself.
"I'm not going to let the Tories define who I am," he said.
He criticized Harper's agenda throughout his speech, and said the Liberals will continue to fight it. He talked about a number of policy issues, including aboriginal communities, crime, health and the economy.
During his lengthy address, Rae tried to instill a sense of pride and a fighting spirit in the 35 MPs sitting before him. The group now includes Lise St-Denis, who crossed the floor from the NDP a day earlier.
He reviewed past accomplishments and policy choices of Liberal governments, including the decision that kept Canada out of the Iraq war, and said the party is more united than ever.
He encouraged the MPs to fight for jobs, universal health care, justice, a prosperous and equitable Canada, the environment, safe communities and more, and said "there is a fight in each and every one of us."
"Our Liberal caucus may be small but the good news is it's growing. And the other piece of good news is we know how to fight. We know how to fight in the House of Commons and we know how to fight in the country at large," he said.
Rae speech prompts leadership questions
The amount of time Rae spent during his speech on his own performance as a leader prompted questions about his future intentions when he faced the media after the caucus meeting. When he took on the interim leadership role last May he agreed to a condition set by the party's national board of directors that he would not seek the permanent position.
Rae said talk about him wanting to hold the job longer-term is "idle speculation."
"Every time I show signs of life people say I'm running for the leadership," he said. "This is going a little far. I'm just doing my job as interim leader. I was asked to do this job, to be vigorous and effective. I'm trying to do that and that's all I'm going to continue to do."
But Rae did little to clear up the speculation. When asked why he wasn't saying anything to rule out running for the job, Rae said he had already answered questions about the leadership. He also dismissed the idea that his refusal to categorically rule out running is distracting from the rebuilding process.
"I don't think it is at all," he said. "I think the rebuild is going very well."
Rae said he is following the rules and is not asking for them to be changed.
"I'm being myself, I'm enjoying myself, I like being interim leader," he said. "I'm enjoying my colleagues, I'm having a good time, I have no other plans beyond that," he said.
He expressed confidence in the party and said this weekend's convention is going to be a very positive step in the rebuilding process.
St-Denis welcomed to Liberal caucus
Earlier in the day, Rae arrived on Parliament Hill with St-Denis, the Quebec MP who defected to his caucus from the NDP on Tuesday, and with MP Denis Coderre, chair of the Quebec caucus.
St-Denis did not stop to answer questions from reporters about whether she was planning to run in the next federal election. However, Rae stepped in to field the question for her.
"The next election is quite a ways off. I'm not sure if anybody can answer the question whether they're going to be running again," Rae said.
The rookie MP, 71, said Tuesday during a news conference with Rae and Coderre that she never expected to win her Saint-Maurice-Champlain riding last May. She said her decision to jump to the Liberals was based on the party's policies, adding it was a move she had been considering for months.
Deputy leader Ralph Goodale said her decision to join the Liberals is one of several encouraging signs for the Liberals but he cautioned the Liberals are not overstating its significance.
"One decision by one member of Parliament is important, it's significant, but we obviously have a lot more work to do. We don't extrapolate too far, we don't try to read too much into one set of circumstances," he said. "But that, together with other things is encouraging for Liberals."
"I think the party is coming into this week – both the caucus and the party across the country – in a very good frame of mind, a very hopeful frame of mind — but not naive, Goodale said. "We know we have a lot of work to do."
Much of the focus of the party's convention in Ottawa this weekend is on how to rebuild the party after its crushing defeat in the last federal election. A new party president and other party officers will be elected during the three-day convention.
Goodale said the convention is one step in a long process of rebuilding. He promised that delegates would hear some positive news about the party's finances, but wouldn't divulge any details.
"We've got some very encouraging news to report to the party about the results from 2011," he said. "We're happy about the progress, we're encouraged about the results. But we've still got a long way to go."