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March 29, 2006

Bill Graham's big job

As the Liberals fire up a massive renewal effort, Graham takes centre stage as interim leader

JOHN GEDDES

There's no front-runner in the Liberal leadership race, just a bewildering field of a dozen or more possible contenders. Not one seems to have all the right qualifications. But imagine if the party faithful could find a candidate with these credentials: experience in two top cabinet posts, all-party respect as a long-time Commons committee chairman, elite academic and blue-chip business credentials, effortless bilingualism, and a rare mix of establishment contacts and proven ability to win votes in the grittiest low-rent urban neighbourhoods. Actually, there is such a figure: Toronto MP Bill Graham, but he took himself out of contention by accepting the job of interim Liberal leader. Graham has suddenly assumed elder statesman status, but he isn't taking that too seriously. "This is because I'm not running for the leadership," he says. "The moment I did, they'd say, 'He's just a bum like the rest of them.' "

Canadians will get plenty of chances to judge for themselves in the coming months. With the Liberal leadership convention set for Dec. 3, Graham, 67, will be the face of the official Opposition through a long stretch of what's shaping up to be a tumultuous minority parliament. He must manage an extraordinarily delicate tactical situation. On one hand, Liberals can't let Prime Minister Stephen Harper enjoy smooth sailing in the House. On the other, they surely don't really want to topple the Tory government and force an election until their new leader is chosen. Graham says that while the party won't go out of its way to trigger an election, it also won't back down on its campaign positions on key issues like child care. What if keeping that vow means sending Canadians back to the polls? "If there are consequences, we'll have to live with the consequences," Graham says. "People didn't vote for us to do nothing just because we've got a leadership conference coming up."

In fact, though, Graham doesn't seem to fear that the government will be defeated any time soon. Conventional wisdom around Ottawa holds that the Bloc Québécois, shocked by the Tory breakthrough in Quebec in the Jan. 23 vote, will prop Harper up rather than risking an even worse result in a snap election. "The climate in Quebec," Graham says, "is such that the Bloc wouldn't do as well in an election tomorrow as they did in the last election." Potential Tory-Bloc co-operation could give the Liberals enough time to not only finish their leadership contest, but also conclude an ambitious party rebuilding exercise.

Details of that Liberal soul-searching process haven't been announced. But in an interview with Maclean's, Thomas Axworthy, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said he is one of four members of a "renewal commission" undertaking a sweeping review of everything the party stands for, and how it's organized. "We're looking at everything, from party structure to election readiness, to relevance and philosophy," said Axworthy, chairman of Queen's University's Centre for the Study of Democracy. As many as 20 task forces are being formed to produce reports on key issues, ranging from core policies like health and immigration, to more esoteric questions like faith and politics. "My mandate is that nothing is sacred," Axworthy said. "There are no taboos. We may confirm where the party has been, but we're at liberty to test all our assumptions."

Interim reports from the task forces could be delivered as early as mid-May, Axworthy said, while he aims to complete a comprehensive document by Labour Day. Along with appointing expert groups to examine key questions, Axworthy said the renewal commission plans to create an Internet-based consultation mechanism, designed to engage rank-and-file Liberals and other interested Canadians. The process is meant not only to give the party an injection of fresh ideas, but also modernize its operations. How all this will dovetail with the leadership race is unclear. Axworthy said his report will have no official status; the new leader can take it or leave it. Candidates will have to strike a balance between pushing their own ideas and accepting those the party is exploring.

And the official renewal process is only part of an even wider effort. A series of policy conferences are being planned, which could be run by Liberals operating independently from the party apparatus. Through all these distractions, Graham has the task of making sure Liberals don't lose profile in the House, particularly during Question Period. "QP is about scoring points," he says, "it's not about exchanging views." That's pragmatic talk from a guy often pigeonholed as too patrician for the tougher side of politics. Raised in the Vancouver mansion of his rich financier father, Graham was first elected MP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale in 1993, after a long career as a litigation lawyer, businessman and law professor. He chaired the House foreign affairs committee for six years, then served as foreign and defence minister for four.

He bristles at suggestions that his privileged upbringing, and the fact the he now represents Toronto's wealthy Rosedale, means he can't relate to ordinary people. Asked about his image, he takes the opportunity to fire back at Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, who recently suggested his appeal is limited to "latte land." He says he's won a lot of votes by campaigning door-to-door in the tough parts of his diverse riding, including the housing projects of Regent Park, often with his wife. "She walks by herself up and down corridors in Regent Park," Graham says. "I bet Margaret Wente would be scared shitless to get out of her car in Regent Park."

Liberals will need him to show plenty of that combativeness when the House resumes sitting next week. For now, the action in the leadership race is largely behind the scenes, though it will pick up as more candidates declare themselves. There's already plenty for Liberal insiders to buzz about. John Godfrey, the first MP to throw his hat in the ring, has signalled his seriousness by signing up Dalhousie University's former top fundraiser, Dale Godsoe, to raise money for his campaign. And party sources say rookie MP Michael Ignatieff, who has still not declared, has secured the support of Trudeau-era Quebec cabinet icon Marc Lalonde and former Ontario premier David Peterson, who some had speculated might support Belinda Stronach.

With all that to occupy them, a lot of Liberals might well forget there is such a thing as the House of Commons in the next few months. It's Graham's job, maybe the last big one of his political career, to make sure they don't.

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