Rana Bokhari and the spread of Liberal fever

Manitoba Liberals opted for a change when they elected Rana Bokhari on the first ballot of their leadership race on October 26th. On appearances alone the first-generation Canadian, who recently turned 36, offers something quite different than former leader Jon Gerrard. Her campaign also contrasted to her opponents, Bob Axworthy and Dougald Lamont, by running on party renewal and acknowledging the large challenges ahead for the third place party. Those challenges should have become immediately clear by the dismal number of members who bothered to cast a vote. The party had 2,146 members eligible to vote, but less than half of that number did. The Bokhari campaign is said to have signed up over 600 new members to the party, her vote total of 431 means that about three quarters of her new supporters didn’t cast a vote, likely more as some of her votes surely came from existing members. While a leadership race can energize a party and create buzz in the media it is clear that the province isn’t quite yet catching Liberal fever.

Early watchers may have pegged Bob Axworthy, the brother of two icons in Liberal circles, as the front-runner.  His campaign was clearly geared towards existing party members so coming in third with only 131 votes looks like a clear rebuke of the “old-guard” of the party. Liberal members may have wondered why a long-time insider of a consistently disappointing party could be seen as a good thing.

Dougald Lamont on the other hand, tried to focus debate on policy and on creating a new kind of political discourse. Unfortunately to me much of what he had to say came off as condescending.  Nothing more than a mailer his campaign sent to Liberal members addressed to “above-average citizens like you – people who are politically engaged & who vote.” His second place finish is respectable but to quote Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first you’re last.”

The Bokhari campaign’s decision to run a campaign based on party issues and not get into specific policy arguments means Bokhari takes over as leader with a bit of a blank slate. Her campaign did not have the focus on poverty and other more “left-wing” issues as the others. She appears to come off as more of a centrist than her opponents. It wouldn’t be a terrible strategy to open the party to red Tories as well as disaffected NDP voters. This should help to broaden the party base. Her leadership commitment to “return to traditional liberal values that balance fiscal responsibility and social justice… we need economic plans and positions that focus on growing a diverse economy and creating opportunity while spending taxpayer dollars wisely” would seem to speak to that.

While now the onus will be on Bokhari to show her hand and indicate how exactly she plans to move forward with her party she also can use the policy front to engage members. Policy making can be a great outlet for party building as it offers a great chance to involve both long-time and new members to contribute to the development of the party.

As it looks quite doubtful that Bokhari will be a member of the legislative assembly before the next election, this will give her an opportunity to focus on working with party members on policy as well as building constituency associations and attracting very valuable volunteers to the fold without having to focus on the House duties that come with being an MLA. A large issue she’ll face is how to keep herself and the party relevant in the eyes of the media. While Manitoba doesn’t have a large cadre of political reporters, the ones that do exist tend to focus a lot of their time on the happenings in the legislature. It will be a challenge for Gerrard, the only Liberal member in the House, to represent his leader in the House, something thing that will likely not come easily as he been leader himself since 1998. He doesn’t appear eager to resign any time soon so he had better be prepared to act as a good foot soldier for her.

Liberals voted for a new leader in the hopes that she will end the party’s electoral slide and take the Liberals in a new direction.  Bokhari was the only candidate during the race that made mention of the state the party is currently in. She is clearly aware of the challenges ahead of her.  However, as a political newcomer she is faced with the challenge of building the party while at the same time defining herself as a party leader who can credibly challenge the seasoned politicians who lead the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties.  It is still in the early days of her leadership but we’ve yet to see much of her since her election. Her first moves as leader should be very interesting to watch.

Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae