Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Can Bokhari rise to the challenge?

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BRANDON -- Minutes after becoming Manitoba Liberal leader last October, Rana Bokhari declared her first priority was to build the party's membership base and bank account. She said "there's a lot of work to be done, but I'm up for the challenge."

Six months have now passed and a growing number of party supporters are wondering if Bokhari was as prepared for the challenge as she claimed.

A Canadian Press report this week revealed party membership has plunged from 2,100 to approximately 700 since Bokhari became leader, and as of last month the party had monthly expenses of $10,600, but just $11,000 in the bank. A $70,000 line of credit was required to cover expenses.

The report said Bokhari recently lashed out at members of the party's board of directors for not helping Liberal candidates in the recent Morris and Arthur-Virden byelections. In addition, a number of reports have indicated that the party is preparing to expel members for publicly criticizing the party's direction and leadership.

All parties have dissenting voices within them, and that has always been the case for the Manitoba Liberal Party. That said, there are legitimate grounds for concern about Bokhari's energy and commitment as party leader.

Two key criteria for electoral success are that voters know who you are and what you stand for. Bokhari's problem -- and therefore the party's problem -- is most Manitobans still don't know who she is and even more have no idea what policies she favours.

She rarely attends question period at the legislature and almost never participates in post-QP scrums with the media. Information from her office indicates that many days of her monthly calendar have had no events scheduled, while others had just one event.

Bohkari seldom ventures outside of Winnipeg. Brandon Liberals complain she did not come to the Wheat City during her leadership campaign, nor has she been here on party business since becoming leader.

In the few interviews with the media, the leader has yet to delve into the specifics of any policy issue, let alone offer a hint of alternatives she might promote in the next provincial election.

When Bokhari became party leader, Liberals thought they were getting a youthful, energetic leader, full of innovative ideas that would attract Manitobans to the party. A growing number of party members now fear they ended up with a leader who was more interested in the title than the task, and who doesn't work nearly as hard as former leader Jon Gerrard did.

The Bokhari issue would be little more than political "inside baseball" if not for three facts. First, the next provincial election is set for just 18 months from now and the clock is ticking.

Second, the Liberal Party receives an annual vote subsidy from Manitoba taxpayers of $63,255. With that funding comes the expectation the party's leader will actively participate in the province's political processes.

Third, recent polls indicate that more than one in four Manitoba voters are seeking an alternative to the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives, the bulk of them parking their support with the Liberals. With that trust comes the responsibility to carefully scrutinize the government's policies and offer options to the public.

For almost two decades, the Manitoba Liberal Party has languished in a political wasteland. Thanks to missteps by the Selinger government and concerns about measures a Tory government might impose, many Manitobans are willing to consider the Liberals.

It is a golden opportunity for Bokhari and her party, but she is letting the opportunity slip through her fingers.

She can't continue to waste valuable time. She must quickly elevate her profile throughout the province and offer something more substantial than vague promises of a "different approach". If she can't do that, much of the Liberals' new-found voter support will evaporate in the next election.

Bokhari must rise to the challenge.

Instead of threatening to expel Liberals questioning her work ethic, she should take a more productive tack -- proving them wrong.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 A11

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About Deveryn Ross

Deveryn Ross joined the Free Press as a political columnist in 2011. His columns also appear in the Westman Journal and other community newspapers throughout Western Canada. He has also served as a columnist for the Brandon Sun, Brandon Today and several rural Manitoba newspapers.

Born and raised in Brandon, where he still resides, Deveryn has been active in politics at all levels for more than four decades. He has worked in various roles on dozens of election campaigns in several provinces and has provided strategic advice to elected officials and candidates from all major parties.

Deveryn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Dalhousie University and Bachelor of Arts from Brandon University, where he was awarded the medal in political science.


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