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Too early to pass judgment on Bokhari

Time for new Liberal Party of Manitoba leader to raise profile

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Rana Bokhari: leading new generation of Liberals

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Rana Bokhari has now officially been welcomed into the "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" club.

The rookie leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba, elected just last fall, is experiencing her first controversy.

A handful of dissidents has dumped a pile of dirty Liberal laundry out for public consumption, complaining the party is broke, membership has dropped by more than two-thirds and Bokhari, a lawyer, is not devoting enough time to raising her profile or that of the party.

The party's squeakier wheels also complained Bokhari was "purging" party members who had the temerity to oppose her leadership.

There is some truth to these allegations. Of course, it's important to remember, as in custody disputes, hyperbole is a fundamental element of most internal political spats. It is true the party bank account is almost empty right now and since her election as leader, there has been a precipitous drop in party memberships. It's also true Bokhari has been mostly invisible since taking over the party's leadership last fall.

However, the distinctive waft of sour grapes surrounds other complaints.

According to Bokhari, no one has been stripped of a party membership although a half-dozen members were issued letters warning them of various breaches of the party's code of conduct. Among those cautioned was Joe Chan, a former Liberal candidate who was the subject of an Elections Manitoba investigation over the accuracy of information in his candidacy papers for the 2011 election.

Is there a real uprising within the party? There has been a lot of change, something you would expect whenever a new leader is elected. In particular, many of the old guard who stuck with the party through the long, dreary, lean years under former leader Dr. Jon Gerrard are being nudged out of key positions by a younger generation. A much younger generation.

The injection of young blood into the Liberal party couldn't come at a better time. Although Gerrard deserves credit for holding on to his River Heights seat even as his party languished, there is no doubt the Liberals have suffered from a lack of energy and creativity. That's not surprising given the fact the party has been focused on just trying to survive.

In many ways it is far too early to accurately judge Bokhari's leadership. She is heading into her first annual general meeting on May 2, and is just now learning a leader's work is rarely ever completely done. And that until you win something other than the leadership itself, you are always going to be surrounded by more critics than supporters.

In addition to being the "brand" of a party, the leader must take the point on fundraising, direct policy formulation and oversee the appointment of strategists and organizers throughout the province. That is a lot for someone who, despite receiving a stipend from the party to pay for time spent politicking, is still essentially a lawyer.

It won't help Bokhari that no party in this country does internal discord like the Liberal party. In fact, it's almost a rite of passage for Grit leaders at both the federal and provincial levels to face open rebellion within a few months of taking office. True to form, Manitoba Liberals have not disappointed.

It may be a telling sign of the political sensibilities of the dissidents attacking Bokhari that they are airing their grievances at a time when opinion polls show the Liberals on the uptick. The latest Free Press-Probe poll had the Grits at 23 per cent support, a solid third and closing on the NDP.

It is not unusual for the Liberals to surge in polls between elections. It has, however, been a very long time since any Liberal leader was able to carry that support through to election day.

To deliver a breakthrough, Bokhari will have to crack two huge tasks: raise her profile significantly before the next election; and find a winnable seat.

Bokhari will not be able to retreat to the relatively safe confines of River Heights, the only Liberal-held seat right now. Gerrard has signalled his intention to run again in that riding, forcing the leader to look elsewhere.

Many Grits think a seat in northwest Winnipeg would be a good bet, given that former MLA and current Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North) has built a formidable electoral machine that extends across several provincial ridings. Wherever she runs, losing is not an option.

For now, the dissidents attacking Bokhari in the name of the party's "grassroots" had better ensure they speak for more than just a few maladjusted axe-grinders. Manitoba Liberals have been presented with a blank canvas on which they can paint an entirely new future.

That future could be filled with images of a fresh, dynamic new leader with new ideas at a time when Manitoba voters need a solid third choice.

Or, it could be dominated by images of infighting and disunity.

The latter picture would mean Liberals had squandered a glorious chance to get back on the political radar in Manitoba for the first time in 20 years.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2014 0

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