Manitoba’s Liberal party once again has a woman at the helm, and whether that spells better fortunes ahead for the party is anybody’s guess.
But for a party that has been in decline for more than a decade — to the point where its former leader, Jon Gerrard, was its only MLA — a change in energy and direction with fresh hands on the reins can only be a welcome one.
On Saturday, Winnipeg lawyer and political newbie Rana Bokhari managed a first-ballot victory over businessman and author Dougald Lamont and longtime party insider Bob Axworthy. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported, Bokhari received support from 431 Liberals in the first round of balloting — a razor-thin margin of victory as organizers had declared 430 votes were needed to win.
Some 2,146 Manitoba Liberals were eligible to cast votes in the leadership campaign. The bulk of those who voted cast their ballots in an advance poll at the party’s headquarters last week.
Only about 300 Liberals were registered for the convention itself — and there were plenty of empty seats at that convention on Saturday too — what one Winnipeg columnist called a missed opportunity for Manitoba’s Liberals to show they were “back in the game.”
Be that as it may, Bokhari’s win comes at an interesting time in Manitoba politics, and more importantly, draws considerable comparisons to former Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs.
Carstairs took over the Liberal leadership in 1984, at a time when the party had lost much of its support base across the province. That year there were no Liberal MLAs, a situation that changed only after she finally won a seat in River Heights two years later during an election.
Following the disastrous Howard Pawley years for the NDP, the Liberals surged in numbers in the 1988 provincial election, siphoning substantial support from the New Democrats to take 20 of the 57 seats in the legislature. As a result, the Progressive Conservatives, under Gary Filmon, formed a minority government.
Oddly enough, history has a way of repeating itself. We, of course, are referring to recent polls that have placed the present Progressive Conservatives under leader Brian Pallister significantly ahead of the flailing NDP, which has taken a severe hit in popular opinion thanks in large part to the PST increase. As such, disaffected NDP voters need a place to park their protest votes, and if the Tories aren’t their flavour of choice, the Liberals are looking increasingly better all the time.
Especially now with a new leader in place.
But the comparisons don’t end there, especially between the two women. Bokhari and Carstairs are both women of considerable firsts in this province.
On her website bio page at sharoncarstairs.ca, among her many accomplishments, Carstairs is listed as the first female leader of a major political party — in this case, the Manitoba Liberals — and the first woman elected leader of the Official Opposition in Manitoba.
Meanwhile, with Bokhari’s win, she has become the youngest person ever to lead the Manitoba Liberals, and the first Manitoban of South Asian descent to lead a political party in the province.
This does not, by any means, lessen the amount of work ahead of the new Liberal leader. The task ahead to rebuild the party and make it a viable force again in Manitoba politics is considerable. But the 36-year-old says she’s aiming high.
“I’m not trying to build a foundation for just the next election. I’m trying to build a foundation that generations can build off of in the future — one that is strong enough that it will not crumble if something goes wrong,” she told the Free Press in a recent interview.
That three strong candidates still thought the Manitoba Liberal Party was worth leading and fighting for tells us that there is life left in the Liberals yet.
The fact that the Liberals didn’t provide much of a show of force at the convention points more to the fact that the party brand has atrophied in this province, and goes to prove just how much work Bokhari has in front of her.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 29, 2013