01/12/2012 04:16 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Rae warns Liberals face tough slogging to recover from near-death

OTTAWA - And now for the bad news.

One day after optimistically predicting the Liberal party could win the next federal election, Bob Rae is reminding Liberals there's still a lot of tough slogging required to recover from their near-death experience in the last vote.

"The message, if you like, is about the glass being, at one and the same time, half-full and half-empty," the interim leader told Liberal riding presidents Thursday.

"And we have to understand that as Liberals."

The riding presidents were meeting one day before the start of a crucial three-day convention aimed at rebuilding the once-mighty party, which was reduced to a third-party rump in last May's election.

Having treated Liberal caucus Wednesday to his more sunny "half-full" analysis of the party's improving health, Rae was "direct and candid" with riding presidents about the challenges that remain for a party that has behaved for decades like an exclusive club, rife with old feuds and turf wars.

"There have to be some things that I think we're bringing an end to, slowly and gradually, but we sure have to keep doing it," he said.

"There is no room for personality conflicts in this party. No organization can withstand internal battles that are based on mistrust .... What matters is our ability to come together and to respect each other."

Rae said he's heard from people who tell him their local Liberal associations won't let them join.

"What the hell is that?"

He's also heard from people who've turned up at Liberal offices to volunteer and have been told their services aren't required.

"Are you kidding me? These are habits of mind that have to change."

To bounce back from last May's historic rout, Rae said the Liberal party must throw open its doors, welcome all comers and transform itself into an inclusive, broad-based political movement. And he said that must start at the local grassroots riding level.

"We can't have little fiefdoms or little cliques or people saying, 'Well, you know, I've been running this riding since 1962' .... A riding association is not a club. The Liberal party is not a club, we are not even a family. Do you know how difficult it is to join a family?

"We're a movement ... and we have to fight at every level to ensure that this culture of trust and respect and dialogue, accepting differences of opinion, inclusiveness, broadening the base, this has to be built into every one of us as we go forward."

Rae underscored the urgent need for new blood, pointing out that Liberal associations are moribund in almost half the country's 308 ridings.

Delegates to the convention will be asked to vote on a host of proposals recommended by the party's national executive to streamline and modernize the party, open it up and provide more clout to grassroots members. Among other things, they'll be asked to support adoption of a U.S.-style primary system, wherein anyone who registers as a supporter of broad Liberal principles — not just card-carrying activists — would be eligible to vote in leadership and nomination contests.

About 3,000 Liberals are expected to attend the convention, although inclement winter weather may interfere with the travel plans of some. Rae told caucus Wednesday that the record attendance is one of numerous signs that Liberals have already begun bouncing back from the drubbing they took in the May election.

He also pointed to improved fundraising and the surprise defection of a New Democrat MP to the Liberals earlier this week.