All three Manitoba Liberal leadership candidates squared off for the first time today at the University of Winnipeg, pledging to battle the province’s social and economic problems if given a chance to lead its third-place party.
Nominations for the Liberal leadership closed on Wednesday. Liberals vote on Oct. 26 on who will replace Jon Gerrard, who will stay on as the lone Liberal in the Manitoba legislature.
About 40 students, party members and observers attended the debate, which took place in a lecture hall. Gerrard and Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux were among those taking in the event.
Candidates were asked to state why they were seeking the leadership and what they thought was the single most important issue facing Manitobans, among other questions.
Political adviser and basketball coach Bob Axworthy, who filed his nomination papers just before deadline, said the province is simply not doing well under the NDP, and as Liberal leader he would work to change that.
Manitoba boasts the highest rate in diabetes among First Nations people, leads the nation in missing and murdered women and children, has the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases and is first or second when it comes to child poverty, he said. Plus, Lake Winnipeg has been rated as the most endangered lake in the world.
"We will no longer lead Canada in the worst statistics of this country" if he becomes party leader and premier, Axworthy, 59, said.
Lawyer Rana Bokhari said the party needs to fight to make itself heard, and the government must reach out to young people and give them a reason for remaining in Manitoba.
Bokhari, 35, started university as a mature student and graduated from law school less than two years ago. Her university career left her with $80,000 in debt, something she said she’s struggling to pay off even as a lawyer.
"I just came out of where you guys are sitting today," she told the students in attendance. "Exactly where you are sitting I was there a year and a half ago. I feel and I know what you’re going through on a day to day basis."
Manitoba needs more high-paying jobs to retain its university grads, she said.
"We should be fighting towards holding our government accountable and asking them how do they plan on keeping us in this province," she said. "Of my class of 110, we’ve lost 46 people."
Job creation and economic opportunity was also a theme struck by communications consultant Dougald Lamont.
"I think the growing gap between the rich and the rest is the single most important economic issue of our time. And we have to do something progressive now," he said.
Youth unemployment and student debt are high, the 44-year-old noted.
Lamont said Tory Leader Brian Pallister was part of a provincial government that slashed grants to university students a few decades ago, increasing their debt. "One reason I’m running is that I don’t want that to happen to this generation," he said.
"For a generation, we’ve been kicking away the ladder of opportunity for young people. And it has got to stop."