What Ontario’s Liberal Party can learn from Manitoba

This column is an opinion by Jamal Abas, a political analyst for Peguis First Nation in Winnipeg who also assists on his family farm. He served as a board member for the Manitoba Liberal Party and ran in the 2016 election, has worked on federal, provincial and municipal campaigns, and is a long-time Liberal supporter with a brief NDP membership. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It was a night to remember for the Manitoba Liberals, and one the Ontario party could learn from as it prepares to elect its new leader: Oct. 26, 2013.

Winning by just one vote on the first ballot, Rana Bokhari was elected to the Manitoba Liberal Party’s top job that night. Her leadership broke glass ceilings in Manitoba politics, but also led to deep fractures within the party itself. 

The Ontario Liberal Party (OLP), despite holding a bigger presence on its provincial political scene, is facing similar internal and external challenges heading into its leadership convention on March 7.

I was a political greenhorn during that 2013 Manitoba leadership campaign, heavily involved in helping to sell memberships and bring out the crucial vote that helped Bokhari take the reins of power. What I learned is that winning a leadership vote is the easy part of leading a successful party, and that when the dust settles, people need to support one another and truly unite — not just shake hands with their opponents after the votes are counted.

Rana Bokhari was the youngest person ever to lead the Manitoba Liberal Party. She has admitted she had a rocky start with the party executive. (CBC)

Despite being young, vibrant, full of energy, and with a plethora of volunteer experience behind her from the federal and provincial wings of the Liberal Party, Bokhari was still largely an unknown politically when she was elected.

Even so, she got to work building up the party and addressing its problems through early efforts such as rejuvenating the board of directors (which I was a member of from 2014 to 2016), increasing party fundraising, and reaching out to youth to get them involved.

Bokhari understood that this behind-the-scenes infrastructure is crucial for success, and her early efforts contributed to promising improvements in polling numbers (although this was also partially due to an unpopular 16-year incumbent NDP government). 

However, the party hit a brick wall dealing with growing internal divisions, primarily among long-time members — many of whom were disgruntled campaign organizers from other leadership candidates’ teams.

Bokhari wasn’t able to bridge the gap between the old guard and new party members, and as the divisions worsened, the early success and promise of the MLP began to unravel. The infighting became very visible and seriously undermined the public’s perception of the already-fragile party’s unity and maturity.

Ultimately, the Manitoba Liberals were far from successful in the 2016 election, securing only the elected minimum for Official Party Status (four seats).

Bokhari receives a hug as she’s surrounded by supporters at her party’s post-election gathering in Winnipeg on April 19, 2016. (Samuel Rancourt/Radio-Canada)

As a candidate in 2016, it was clear to me that despite running a good campaign, our results were hindered by party bickering that the voting public had a front-row seat to.

When the public sees a divided party, they are less likely to vote for it. It sounds simple, but oftentimes this is overlooked — especially by new, energetic leadership that is focused on trying to rebuild.

Likewise, the results of the 2019 Manitoba provincial election were arguably a direct result of that inability to unite after the 2013 leadership election.

The cracks in the party led to Bokhari’s resignation in September 2016, a heated leadership campaign in 2017, and the election of new leader Dougald Lamont. There was a very public mass-exit by key party organizers in 2018, and they took with them their extensive experience and committed volunteerism. With little effort made to repair that internal damage, it created even greater turmoil in the party, which the public became privy to.

When the dust settled, the lack of a cohesive team was a big issue contributing to the party’s poor results at the 2019 polls, and the Manitoba Liberals lost official party status.

While there were definitely a number of rookie political errors made along the way, if they’d been able to repair their internal divisions, it is likely a truly united party would have fared much better in both the 2016 and 2019 Manitoba provincial elections. 

For their part, the Ontario Liberals have a great variety of candidates vying for the leadership at their March 7 election, including two sitting MPPs who were able to weather the blue wave of Doug Ford in 2018. While the Ontario Liberal leadership campaign has been relatively quiet so far, post-election building is where unity will count no matter which one of the candidates is elected.

The Ontario Liberals may be dealing with an unpopular PC government and a dormant NDP, but there is going to be real work needed to rebuild the party after their March convention.

I witnessed a promising and energetic leader in Manitoba who was overshadowed by bruised egos, limited finances and a divided party. The overall intentions of the new members and leadership were good, but prioritizing the building of bridges within the party was ignored early on. This led to a festering anger, which hindered the team right out of the gate and for years afterwards. 

Externally, the political challenge for a party is to win elections or at least increase seats. However, as their counterparts in Manitoba discovered, whoever wins the OLP leadership race will not be successful without ensuring that behind the scenes, everything is politically copacetic.

The Ontario Liberals have a lot of work to do to win back the public’s confidence and support, but if they do not ensure they are united behind whoever is elected as the party’s new leader, their best efforts will fail. If the Ontario Grits go any other way than towards presenting a united front, their party is likely to remain a shell of its former self.


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