There are three candidates running to lead a party that has been on a steady decline since 1990; a party with only one MLA in the Manitoba legislature.
There is still much debate over whether or not the Manitoba Liberal Party can become relevant again. The meager attendance at the first leadership debate would indicate that the road ahead isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but the fact that three individuals have put their names forward to lead it cannot be scoffed at.
I’ve previously written that the current state of Manitoba politics has created an opportunity for the Liberals to capture disaffected NDP voters and unconvinced PC supporters. It would appear that a few others agree.
In contrast to the Progressive Conservative leadership “race” in 2012 which led the acclamation of Brian Pallister, the Liberals will be able to engage in frank, open discussion about the future of their party and the ways in which it can be begin to become a player again. With a paltry 7.5 per cent of the popular vote in 2011 it appears that the Liberals have nowhere to go but up. To me, the problem with the PC party is that it has always retained a base of about 35 per cent.
This has always given the party hope that they were just one leader or one election away from government, without having a real debate on what the party stands for or what it needs to be doing differently to form government. Then, when not a single other candidate thought it was worthwhile to run in 2012, the membership was again denied an opportunity for a constructive debate about the party. In my view the party could have used a proper drubbing in 2003 or 2007 that would have forced a rethink and may have made the party more palatable to Winnipeg voters.
The primary excuse for individuals not to run for the PC leadership was they were not interested in the time commitment they felt would be necessary to build up the party. This is from a party that had almost 44 per cent of the popular vote last election and as we have seen from polls lately is one large government mistake – PST anyone? – away from forming government. Clearly the Liberal effort is much larger. The fact that three candidates have put their names forward is a testament to the will of the individuals and their conviction that the Liberal Party is worth saving. It was recently reported that the party would pay the new leader a $50,000 salary, that number is encouraging for the party as it indicates it actually has that kind of money to give, and the figure isn’t so large that candidates would look at it as if it’s a much more lucrative job than what they’re currently doing. A salary of $50,000 per year is $35,000 less than the base MLA salary.
All three candidates vying to lead the Liberals have to be well aware of the monumental challenge they are faced with, but in this comes opportunity. The status quo has clearly not been working. This means whoever becomes the new leader has every reason to shake things up and not be constrained by the old guard in the party, which has stood by while the Liberals continued to lose more and more ground each election. The results speak for themselves. The past leadership of the party has done very little right electorally. The new leader does not need to take over the party, blow the whole thing up and start fresh, that’s essentially already been done for them.
For political animals like myself, a party’s leadership race is the penultimate political process. Leadership campaigns are often much more interesting than general elections. Both Rana Bokhari and Dougald Lamont bring a more youthful presence to the race, while Bob Axworthy brings experience and a valuable surname amongst Liberal circles. It’s Bokhari’s youth and gender that initially set her apart from her competitors in the early stages.
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Regardless of the winner and the ultimate outcome of the race, I look forward to the debate over the party’s future, where the candidates intend to take the party, and how they aim to get there. The candidates will have much work to do to articulate their vision; show how they can make the supporter lists swell and attract invaluable volunteers to the party will be paramount to a successful leadership campaign. For the sake of democracy in the province, let’s hope for an entertaining and insightful race.
Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae