The Manitoba Liberal leadership debate

If you attended the second and last debate in the Manitoba Liberal leadership race you may have thought the candidates are all vying to become Premier. There was no mention of the party’s dismal electoral record and that the party has seen its support decline in every election for the past 20 years.

No, the way the candidates were discussing topics like poverty, seniors, and immigration, one would think these people truly believe they are going to be Premier. The fact is Sharon Carstairs, the most successful Liberal leader of the modern era was never able to become more than leader of the Official Opposition. Not to belittle that achievement, but let’s be serious that is the absolute high-bar for these candidates right now.

While Carstairs was able to capitalize on the collapse of Howard Pawley’s NDP government she was never able to build a lasting Liberal force. Her huge pick-up of 19 seats in 1988 saw her lose 13 of them only two years later. While a repeat of these successes would be huge for the party, they cannot allow it to be one blip only to have the party decline once again.  It is incredibly hard to imagine any circumstance in which a surge like that could ever repeat itself. The party needs a complete overhaul from the ground up to form a coalition of lasting supporters. It appears that few in the party actually realize that.

Many of the questions in the debate were asked by groups representing interests such as municipalities and seniors. To take questions from these sorts of groups and pose them to candidates as if they are running to lead a government in waiting is utter nonsense. It is my understanding that other questions were pre-submitted by actual party members.  It appears that these members are also delusional as all questions pertained to large provincial and occasionally federal matters, nothing regarding the actual state of the party. As former Prime Minister Kim Campbell once said “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”

If she had said this in reference to policy debates for opposition leadership races she would have been bang on. The thing is policy has never really been the downfall of the Manitoba Liberals.  Under soon to be former leader Jon Gerrard the Liberals actually ran on some decent platforms.  The problem was Gerrard’s complete lack of charisma, inability to make a connection with voters and failure to grow the party outside of a core group of longtime supporters.

The only bright spot from the debate, or the entire race from what I can see, is Rana Bokhari. The debate’s opening and closing statements were the only opportunity of the night for candidates to offer something besides their views on inane policy questions. Bokhari used both her opening and closing statements to talk about the party, touching on the need to increase memberships and fundraising, which are very important for a fledgling party. While she backed away from full on criticism of her opponents she hinted at one point saying “Vote for me if we want a change. If we want the same status quo…” before stopping herself. Dougald Lamont, who spent an odd amount of the night criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal government, explained he’s running because of his children and offered some views on the economy. When Bob Axworthy wasn’t telling anecdotes he made brief mention of the party saying something about how it shouldn’t insular and should not be making comments on Facebook.

Of course the debate should not be the only criteria upon which to judge the candidates. A quick look at each candidate’s website gives an idea of each candidate’s mindset. Axworthy’s site has no mention of the party. Just headings such as “poverty,” “human rights,” and “economy,” but they don’t actually link to anything. Lamont’s site only really says who he is, much like Axworthy’s shows very little of anything. Bokhari’s on the other hand features “a message from Rana,” which talks about “increasing memberships” and “solid finances,” the kind of stuff a third place party may want to focus on.

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The Manitoba Liberal Party has a unique opportunity to stop the bleeding. Candidates shouldn’t view the leadership process as a race for glory, but rather a rescue mission. The truth is if the Liberals can even achieve official party status (winning 4 seats) it should be viewed as a triumph. The sooner the party and its members realize this they may be able to lay the foundations for that and one day possibly more.

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