Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/2/2016 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — On the final weekend of the federal election last October, thousands of people crammed into the St. James Civic Centre in Winnipeg to hear Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau give his final campaign pitch in the city.
"I’m absolutely blown away by how many people are here tonight," Trudeau said, surveying the crowd.
For a federal party that four years earlier had almost ceased to exist in Manitoba, the Liberal comeback story of 2015 was quite remarkable. They more than tripled their vote in the province over four years, added six additional MPs for a total of seven and developed well-organized, well-funded riding associations. Their voter lists and fundraising abilities are now enviable.
One might think all of that success at the federal level would easily be transferred to the provincial level this spring.
One would be wrong.
"The federal machine, by and large, is not engaging," acknowledged Mike Brown, the provincial Liberal party’s director of communications.
Some of this is because of the sheer amount of work the federal party has on its plate to transition to government and attack its ambitious policy agenda. A number of key local Liberals are now in Ottawa, including former provincial executive director Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe, who ran Winnipeg South Centre MP Jim Carr’s campaign and is now his special assistant in Ottawa. Carr’s son Ben, a longtime Winnipeg Liberal operative, is in Ottawa working for the minister of heritage. Others are working as constituency staff.
The Liberal MPs are helping out when and where they can, although they are limited in their time by their own job commitments.
While there is an incredibly cosy relationship between the Trudeau Liberals and Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in Ontario, no such relationship exists in Manitoba. Trudeau made a campaign appearance to try to help the Ontario Liberals in a recent byelection, but there will be no Trudeau trip to Manitoba during the upcoming campaign.
Nor, several sources told the Free Press, will there be any federal Liberal organizers on the ground in Manitoba.
Rana Bokhari did get some training from the federal Liberal party last year, but several federal Liberals told the Free Press both she and her team have given a lot of federal Liberals pause.
"There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the leader," said one federal Liberal source speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It’s a different organization than us. They are just completely different."
Some of Bokhari’s policies, such as privatizing liquor sales, are too far to the right for federal Grits, and the fact she hired former Tories solidified the feeling she doesn’t have a lot in common with Team Trudeau. Brown used to work in the regional ministerial office of former Conservative MP Vic Toews. To say there was no love lost between Toews and federal Liberals would be an understatement, and there are many who simply don’t trust anyone who worked for him.
That has prevented federal Liberal riding associations from handing over their lengthy electoral lists of supporters, volunteers and donors to provincial candidates.
For the provincial party, which struggles financially and has few riding associations with any real organization, those lists would be electoral gold. Those lists may be provided before the campaign begins officially in a couple of weeks, but their usefulness is limited at this point. It took MPs such as Terry Duguid and Jim Carr more than a year of hard campaigning to rebuild their riding associations and develop the support that got them elected. Provincial candidates won’t be able to achieve the same result in just a matter of weeks.
There is also one factor in play that is a sign of just how strategic politics can sometimes be. Many federal Liberals would rather support the Manitoba NDP. The federal group doesn’t think Bokhari has what it takes to win, and every vote that goes to her party is seen as a vote away from the provincial NDP.
The federal Liberals have a good relationship with Greg Selinger’s government and would rather keep it in office than have to manage against a Tory government led by former Canadian Alliance MP Brian Pallister.