All systems go for Liberal reboot. Will they blow it?


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Manitoba Liberals have been here before.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2017 (1987 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba Liberals have been here before.

The province’s perennial third-place party has a new leader, a new reservoir of hope and — perhaps — a second chance at political glory.

Dougald Lamont, a longtime party organizer, was somewhat of a surprise winner at the weekend leadership convention, triumphing over MLAs Cindy Lamoureux and Jon Gerrard, a former leader. Lamont has never been elected, and has spent most of his political life in the backrooms. This was Lamont’s second bid to lead the Grits.

For his efforts, Lamont suddenly finds himself taking over a party on the upswing.

A recent Free Press-Probe Research poll has the Liberals surging in voter support. Weighed down by austerity measures and controversial changes to health care, the governing Progressive Conservatives are still out in front with 36 per cent. The NDP is holding firm at 30 per cent, a somewhat remarkable achievement given the allegations of a 14-year-old domestic assault that have been following new leader Wab Kinew.

And then there is the Liberal party. Even without a leader, the surprising Liberals were up four points to 24 per cent.

This poll most definitely has a message for the Liberals: voters are looking for an option other than the Tories or NDP, so show us what you’ve got.

If there is anything to dampen the optimism around Lamont’s victory, it is that Rana Bokhari was in pretty much the same position five years ago and was unable to take advantage of it.

There wasn’t much to be hopeful about in 2013, but the federal Liberal victory in the fall of 2015 suddenly made the Grits a hot political brand once again. Pre-election polls in December 2015, just four months before Manitobans went to the polls, had the Liberals running neck and neck with Premier Brian Pallister’s Tories.

Initially, Bokhari acquitted herself quite well as a leader, grabbing headlines with some funky pre-campaign policy proposals, and putting in solid if not unspectacular performances at early campaign leaders debates. However, by the time the campaign hit the half-way mark, Bokhari was barely keeping her head above water.

Her promises lacked detail or, sometimes, logic. When reporters challenged her muddled math or tortured explanations, she often lashed out in frustration. Behind the scenes, the situation was even more of a mess.

The party did a poor job of vetting candidates, and ultimately lost several to either controversy or a failure to meet Elections Manitoba filing requirements. A lack of money meant Bokhari had to fly blind in the campaign, without focus groups or polling.

The result of the Bokhari experience was a mixed bag. The Liberals increased their share of the vote and their seat total to three from one. But Bokhari could not win a seat and was chiefly responsible for a campaign that would always be remembered as “the missed opportunity.”

Ironically, Lamont is in much the same position that Bokhari occupied in 2013: a new leader with no seat who will be forced to make his mark working outside the fishbowl environment of the Manitoba legislature.

And like Bokhari, Lamont is inheriting a party that is short on cash and capacity. The logistical problems with the weekend leadership convention confirm the party would have trouble organizing a two-car parade.

“Technical glitches” with delegate registration technology not only delayed voting for several hours, it prevented the Liberals from creating a true spectacle that could serve to announce the party’s return to credibility. More than 1,200 delegates registered for the convention in Winnipeg; by the time Lamont won on the second ballot, less than 600 delegates had voted.

The weekend’s technical snafus represented a tragic turn of events for the Liberals. If they had been able to fill the big room, and create images of more than 1,000 delegates celebrating a new leader, you can bet there would have been a convention bounce for Lamont’s Liberal party. However, as was the case when Bokhari was in charge, the party continues to have a capacity for turning victory into defeat.

And that pretty much describes the challenge facing Lamont.

Known as the angry man of Liberal politics in Manitoba, he must work on his retail political skills. He can do that by travelling around the province to show Manitobans he is worthy of their support. And he will need to come up with winning ideas that demonstrate he is not just trying to occupy the mushy middle between Pallister’s hard fiscal line and the NDP’s limitless faith in government to fix all that ails society.

But more important than any of that is the need for Lamont to make this a functioning party.

Elections are won now on the strength of voter-identification data, the accompanying analytics, and polling. You can’t just put some names on a ballot and hope that voters are going to find you on election day. The Liberals tried that approach in 2016 and it failed miserably.

Lamont will also have to deal with the Gerrard factor.

Gerrard is a former leader who, despite stoic resolve and a heroic work ethic, could not win the support of Manitobans. His principal accomplishment will be his ability to retain the River Heights constituency through thick and thin. Now, his last act of loyalty to the party will be to give up that seat and create a spot for Lamont to run in a byelection. Gerrard’s decision to jump back in the leadership race is an indication this will not be an easy task to accomplish.

For the Liberals to have any hope, they need new blood and a new dedication to issue management and party finances. And they need to get Lamont into the legislature. River Heights gives him the best opportunity to do that.

To have any hope of leading the province, he must demonstrate he can lead his own party out of the wilderness and into legitimate competition with the other two main parties. That will mean making some tough decisions.

The good news is there could be a huge payoff for a leader willing to make those tough decisions.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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