In Canada, it’s rare for a political party to win four consecutive majority governments. Heading to the polls on October 4, will Manitoba’s New Democratic Party be one of those rare exceptions? Does it deserve to be?
Though he was Minister of Finance in the government of Gary Doer, this will be Greg Selinger’s first election as leader of Manitoba’s NDP. Selinger lack’s the boyish charm, the talent for clever sounding 30 second sound bites, the outgoing personality and the seeming absence of any hard core principles — all of which traits were so useful to Doer in his political career as well as his success as Canada’s number one Washington lobbyist for the Alberta tar sands.
Aside from his luck in coming into office at the right time of the business cycle and having incompetent lackluster leadership at the helm of Manitoba’s Conservative party, Doer’s other advantage came from implementing a uniquely cynical political formula. By taking on Conservative issues like tax cuts, balanced budgets and fighting crime, he left the Tories with little to campaign on. In the words of a top official in Doer’s office, it was a strategy of “inoculating” itself against criticism from its traditional foes. And it worked, disarming the business community and even the province’s right wing media. In fact, Doer was the darling of both the media and the business community.
As a consequence, apart from helping to help fund a new hockey arena that would eventually become the home of the returning Winnipeg Jets, few people can remember any major accomplishments of the Doer regime. It certainly made no dent on Manitoba’s child poverty rate, the highest in Canada. After adjusting for inflation, social allowances were less than what they had been when the NDP took office and social housing was largely abandoned. The minimum wage eventually inched forward but only after the government was pushed by a major campaign launched by the Just Income Coalition, a coalition of church groups, anti-poverty groups, the labour movements and various other social justice organizations.
Though it hasn’t done much to earn their hostility, Manitoba’s business establishment and the media, haven’t bought into the Selinger regime. In fact, the attacks against it have been relentless. But apart from the usual tax and spend complaints and the fact that Manitoba has not kept pace with its resource richer prairie neighbours, the only real issue left on the table for the Tories is the route of the transmission line that will carry power from Manitoba Hydro’s new Waskwatim dam to southern Manitoba and the U.S. The NDP is committed to building the line on the west side of Lake Winnipeg rather than the east side. Much more costly, construction on the west side protects the east side’s pristine boreal forest, one of the world’s largest carbon storage sinks while maintaining its biodiversity. A west-side route leaves Manitoba with the ability to promote a UNESCO world heritage site — an eco-tourist’s dream destination — and any subsequent spinoffs that might arise from the designation. Though this is the major issue for the Tories going into this campaign, what impact it will have on election night is not at all clear.
In one respect, the Manitoba election is a replay of the recent federal election, but with the NDP leader Selinger playing Harper and Hugh McFadyen, the Conservative leader playing Jack Layton. The NDP is running on a “steady as she goes,” “don’t rock the boat” campaign with Selinger, being portrayed as the prudent fiscal manager promising to eliminate the provincial deficit by 2014 while tagging the Tories under McFadyen as unproven upstarts that will cut social services and privitize Manitoba Hydro as it did Manitoba Telephone when McFadyen was a senior policy advisor to Gary Filmon, the last Tory premier. McFadyen, of course, is running on a “Time for a Change” campaign.
After 12 years in office the NDP has generated plenty of grievances in the usual places and is vulnerable in a number of ridings. But can the Tories overcome its large deficit? Last election they won only 19 seats to the NDP’s 36, 38 per cent of the popular vote to the NDP’s 48 per cent. The Liberals and Greens are non-factors in Manitoba politics. The latest opinion poll shows the Conservatives and NDP tied with 44 per cent voter support.
There is a fairly positive feeling in the province these days — at least in the city of Winnipeg where half the population resides. The NHL is back in town, the Bombers’ new stadium will be up next year as will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Downtown Winnipeg, dilapidated for so many years, is undergoing a major overhaul. But with the polls so evenly divided has the NDP government done enough to fire up the troops? Selinger is proving to be as much the incrementalist as was Doer but without his flair. So far at least there is no indication that he will be bringing in reforms that could have large impacts on any one of the housing, health, home care, child care and educational needs of the province’s working people to say nothing of its swelling poor. There is no sign of electoral reform (proportional representation anyone?), commitment to living wages, green economy. In short, nothing much to get excited about.
The election outcome? At this point it’s a close call.
Cy Gonick is publisher of Canadian Dimension where this article first appeared.