Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberals need to come out swinging

Winnipeg South Centre important barometer

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You don't have to dig very deep in this city to find federal Liberals proclaiming a resurgence in what at one time seemed to be a moribund party.

Just three years ago, the Liberals were humiliated at the polls and reduced to third-party status. The party lost its ability to effectively raise money and attract dynamic new candidates.

And then Justin Trudeau came along. His completely unpredictable, and somewhat messy, leadership style suddenly turned Liberal fortunes around. Now, national polls have the Liberals positioned as a competitive electoral option once again.

However, poll results do not an election-win make. To really gauge the magnitude of the Liberal resurgence, you need to look at the ferocity of nomination battles going on right now across the country. Like the one shaping up in Winnipeg South Centre.

The seat is currently held by Tory MP Joyce Bateman, who knocked off Liberal veteran Anita Neville in the 2011 federal election. However, the Liberals appear poised to generate a truly epic battle for the chance to challenge Bateman in the next election, expected in the fall of 2015. Right now, there is only one declared candidate. Maurice Alexander, a relative newcomer currently working as a policy analyst for the provincial government, last month formally announced his intention to seek the South Centre nomination. Alexander, however, is going to have to beat some bona fide heavy hitters if he wants to carry Grit colours into the next election.

Karen Taraska-Alcock, widow of the late Grit power broker Reg Alcock and a top political strategist and organizer in her own right, confirmed Sunday night she will definitely be running for the nomination. "I've lived in various neighbourhoods throughout Winnipeg South Centre my whole life," she said. "I've raised children here. My parents live here. It was the logical conclusion that I should run here."

Also joining the race will be former Liberal MLA Jim Carr, who has been the CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba since 1998. Carr resigned his post at the council on Jan. 31 and is expected to formally announce his candidacy within the next two weeks.

Three candidates is a good start. However, just showing up isn't going to signify a return of the Liberals in Manitoba. The candidates need to sell memberships, and plenty of them, as a show of strength. And there is no other riding in Manitoba where the Liberals have a better opportunity to put that strength on display.

Simply put, Winnipeg South Centre is hallowed Liberal ground. Former MP and cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy held this riding, in one form or another thanks to boundary and name changes, for 21 years. In the latter years of the Trudeau administration, he stood as a Liberal beach head in Western Canada, one of the only Grits west of the Ontario/Manitoba border.

Neville carried on Axworthy's tradition for another decade, holding the seat until 2011. However, during that long, uninterrupted run of Liberal success, the Grit membership base evaporated.

This shrinkage was evident in October 2000 at the nomination to replace Axworthy. In that battle, school trustee Neville went up against political staffer Judy Edmond and former Saskatchewan MP Gordon Kirkby. Edmond, considered to be Axworthy's choice as a replacement, failed to make much of a show of strength at the nomination meeting. Neville was declared the winner in a race where only 180 of 300 eligible party members showed up to vote. The riding association would not release the specific results.

Neville did hold on to the riding for another decade, but as soon as the right-of-centre parties united, she and the Liberals found themselves outgunned. Suddenly, the fact the Liberals had only 300 members in one of the most important ridings in the West seemed a relevant, revealing fact.

It would not be an exaggeration to say this time around, the Liberals need to sell thousands of memberships and hold a nomination meeting worthy of a convention centre ballroom. This is not just about nominating a candidate to challenge Bateman; it's about showing Winnipeggers the Liberals, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, are back as a legitimate electoral option.

Generating memberships for a nomination battle is the first step in reviving interest in a Liberal candidate and, it would follow, turning out significant support on election day.

The Liberals have all the ingredients for a compelling nomination story in Winnipeg South Centre. However, anything less than a massive show of strength will be evidence the recent poll numbers, which have been so exciting for Liberals across the country, might have little relevance come election time.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 A6

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