In the days following the 2007 election, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce’s board was deflated.
The board gathered for a debrief, where the chamber’s policy and communications boss Chuck Davidson explained how the election shook out and what then-premier Gary Doer’s third term would mean for business.
"There was a real sense the business community wasn’t heard, that the issues important to us never really got discussed," recalled Davidson. "The seed was sort of planted the day after the last election. We need to be more active."
That frustration sparked the Manitoba Bold campaign — essentially an alternative election platform full of big ideas born out of a series of brainstorming summits the chamber started hosting earlier this year. After one of those summits, Davidson said he had 23 pages of ideas, proof there is an appetite for a little political risk.
The chamber’s campaign is one of at least seven similar public awareness offensives launched by everyone from teachers to hog farmers to electrical workers this election.
There are radio ads about a new deal for cities, lawn signs demanding the government shrink education property taxes and billboards touting a publicly-owned Manitoba Hydro. Journalists are invited almost daily to a debate or press conference hosted by a union, a real estate association, a farm group or business leaders. Want to watch a funny video on the This Hour Has 22 Minutes website? First, you’ll have to sit through a commercial about smaller class sizes created by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
The aggressive campaigns are a refreshing twist in an election season short on sizzle.
All three major parties have spent the last four weeks hugging the middle — no surprise in a province where voters gravitate toward the centre and favour small tweaks instead of wholesale change.
So far, this election has been about new ambulance stations for Ile-des-Chenes, a fitness tax credit or who can hire more police officers — all worthwhile but all classically incremental. The party platforms have been limited in ambition, and a real vision for the province remains largely unarticulated.
It’s a careful, no-risk approach to politics perfected by the NDP and adopted by the Tories this time. It’s left a bit of a vacuum in the province’s political discourse which groups such as unions, realtors and business leaders have been happy to fill.
The bevy of outside lobbying campaigns is also a function of this election’s one major innovation: The fixed voting date.
Manitobans have known for three years they would be heading to the polls Oct. 4. That’s given lobby groups and unions ample time to prepare their talking points, budget for ad campaigns, book air time and plan their attack.
In past years, lobby groups were left guessing with the rest of us when the writ might be dropped, scrambling at the last minute to snag billboard locations, prime television spots and the public’s attention.
The new luxury of time has added dramatically to the number of voices competing for each voter’s attention, creating a lot more noise this election, but also possibly a little more voter engagement.
Association of Manitoba Municipalities President Doug Dobrowolski said his organization is venturing where it never has, right into the election fray.
"We felt this election would be a very close election," he said. "We’re always dominated by health, education... We thought this was an opportune time to get the needs of communities on the agenda."
The AMM tapped into a reserve fund it was saving for just such a large-scale ad buy and launched the Putting Communities First campaign. Radio commercials, one voiced by QX104’s Boyd Kozak, decried the shoddy state of urban roads, rinks and sewers. They hit the airwaves the day the writ was dropped. Another round of more pointed radio spots will air before voting day.
Dobrowolski said the AMM started planning the campaign in January, doing some polling and launching a president’s tour of the province’s cities and towns to lay the groundwork for the campaign over the summer.
There are essentially no rules about third-party advertising during an election, which free speech advocates would call quite proper.
In 2000, very early in the NDP’s mandate, the party proposed a $5,000 cap on any third party spending that directly endorsed a candidate or party.
The cap would not have applied to "communication made for the purpose of gaining support on an issue of public policy" or for advancing the aims of a group that is not a partisan political group as long as the ad didn’t promote or oppose a particular registered political party or candidate. That amendment to the Elections Finances Act was never enacted.
One line in the current act says that, if a third-party advertises with the "knowledge and consent" of a party, those ads must count toward the party’s advertising spending cap. What exactly counts as "knowledge and consent" has never been exactly clear.
The Tories are still angry over a huge ad buy during the 2007 election featuring nurses tsk-tsking about the dismal days in the 1990s under Tory Premier Gary Filmon, when the nurses said patient care was compromised by deep cuts.
The Tories still believe, though Elections Manitoba disagreed, the commercials amounted to a violation of campaign spending rules. The ads stopped short of endorsing the NDP by name, but they were seen by the Tories, with some justification, as little more than proxies for the NDP campaign.
Those ads have become a kind of benchmark, especially for unions. Anything more partisan and Elections Manitoba might crack the whip. Some unions even got legal advice this year to make sure they were falling well within the rules.
This election, the third-party campaigns have been somewhat less overtly partisan, though it’s obvious the union-backed campaigns are meant to undercut the Tories, especially one that raises the spectre of a Manitoba Hydro sell-off.
The crusade that most rankles the Tories is the one launched by the teachers’ union in the spring about class sizes. The radio and TV ads themselves are pretty non-partisan, touting the progress made in education and the lingering need for smaller class sizes. The hitch for the Tories was that the NDP pledged to cap class sizes at the Manitoba Teachers’ Society headquarters just as another blitz of class-size commercials hit the airwaves. That suggested collusion, which formed the basis of a Conservative complaint to the election commissioner.
"The content of the advertising campaign makes it abundantly clear that the MTS is promoting the NDP election promise relating to class size," Tory party CEO Jonathan Scarth wrote to the elections commissioner earlier this month.
Arguably this election’s biggest and broadest third-party campaign is the multi-pronged one launched by the Manitoba Pork Council, though it was never meant to be a vote-changer, said General Manager Andrew Dickson.
The pork council has blanketed the airwaves and the city in outdoor advertising featuring local hog producers describing the environmental care they take to protect the province’s water and soil. Another more pointed element of the campaign, this one a series of full-page open letters to Manitobans in newspapers such as the Winnipeg Free Press, decries the flack the industry has taken from the province when it comes to cleaning up Lake Winnipeg.
Dickson says the television ads began running in late spring, not to lay the groundwork for the election but in direct response to the Save Lake Winnipeg Act. That act broadens the ban on new or expanded hog barns to everywhere in Manitoba, not just the Red River Valley, a move pork producers say will cripple an industry vital to Manitoba’s economy. The pork industry says it is responsible for less than two per cent of phosphorus run-off into Lake Winnipeg.
Dickson notes the television ads and the more politically charged open letter say virtually nothing about voting on Oct. 4 and make no mention of contacting party leaders or candidates.
"We don’t see this as an election issue. We see this as an ongoing debate with the provincial government," said Dickson. "It’s not about the politics, it’s not about the election. It’s about talking to the people of this province."
Dickson said the television spots and the bus shelter ads will continue after voting day.
Let’s Pay Fair
What it’s about: Removing education taxes from property and getting government to commit to funding 80 per cent of education costs from general revenue, up from the current estimate of 65 per cent.
Who’s behind it: A coalition of 40 groups representing realtors, cottagers, farmers and business groups such as the Winnipeg and Manitoba real estate association, the Winnipeg and Manitoba chambers of commerce, the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association.
Size of the campaign: Under $25,000, since there were no TV, radio or print ads.
Where you’ve seen it: Several hundred black and blue lawn signs that read "I want school tax off my property". A rally of cottage owners at the legislature. Stories in the media. An electronic form letter to politicians that’s been sent 300 times.
Quote: "Over the last few years, the province has played with removing ‘this education levy’ and increasing ‘that education credit’ in a complicated game to fund education from property taxes. Let’s make this simple and get education taxes off property." — Keystone Agricultural Producers President Doug Chorney.
Did the politicians bite? They nibbled around the edges, as coalition chair Lorne Weiss said earlier this week. The Tories will extend the $700 education property tax credit to cottage owners. The NDP pledged to eliminate the school tax for seniors and farmers.
I am Part of the Solution
What it’s about: Ending the ban on hog barn expansions in Manitoba, which the provincial NDP enacted to help clean up Lake Winnipeg, and promoting the environmental and water protections practices farmers already employ.
Who’s behind it: Manitoba Pork Council, with the support of several other provincial agricultural organisations and business groups.
Size of the campaign: Pretty huge. The Pork Council wouldn’t put a figure on it, but it’s easily the biggest campaign with the highest production values.
Where you’ve seen it: On television, where the pork council has run high-quality commercials featuring environmental staff from the pork industry since the spring. On bus shelters, where local hog farmers proclaim "I am part of the solution." Open letters in the Winnipeg Free Press and radio ads.
Quote: "We need more research to understand and deal with issues of algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg. We also need a co-operative and consultative approach with all stakeholders to fix problems, not a heavy-handed, misplaced regulatory approach. Manitoba farmers can be, and want to be, a part of the solution. We do not deserve most of the blame." — Open letter to Manitobans signed by 15 agricultural groups.
Did the politicians bite? Not really. Lake Winnipeg didn’t get a ton of attention this election, and hog barns got even less. Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen, whose party hold most rural seats and would be most likely to side with hog farmers, has said he supports the barn ban.
Working Families Manitoba
What it’s about: Raising issues important to workers such as workplace health and safety, child care and the minimum wage.
Who’s behind it: Manitoba Federation of Labour
Size of the campaign: Medium, roughly $100,000 in radio ads, web production and other related costs.
Where you’ve seen it: Not on TV, but on the radio. The MFL created three different radio ads that ran over the summer and during the first week of the campaign. The spots were about bolstering health care and workplace safety and the importance of raising the minimum wage. They also created an online-only video and the campaign made an appearance at events such as Gimli’s Icelandic Festival parade and Winnipeg’s Pride parade.
Quote: "...[T]here are strong voices out there who believe our minimum wage is too high and workers are paid too much. Others think having and enforcing strong rules to keep workers safe is just red tape. Most Manitobans would see moving in those directions as a step backwards — and we do, too." — Working Families Manitoba website.
Did the politicians bite? Not really, especially on workplace safety issues, which is unfortunate since Manitoba traditionally has a hefty number of workplace injuries and deaths every year. And, early on in the campaign, the big talker was a pledge by the Liberals to allow more Sunday shopping, a move that doesn’t jibe with the MFL’s bid for more vacation time and better hours for workers.
What it’s about: Five big ideas to kick-start Manitoba, and the election campaign. Those include serious tax cuts, boosting new business start-ups and head-office recruiting, turning Manitoba Hydro into a green powerhouse and making Winnipeg a creative capital.
Who’s behind it: Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
Size of the campaign: Small. It cost, very roughly, $20,000.
Where you’ve seen it: In the news, mostly. The chamber hosted a series of conferences and summits of business leaders and others to brainstorm big ideas for the province, then turned those ideas into a platform that dribbled out throughout the campaign.
Quote: "In order to move Manitoba forward we must make the case in the 2011 provincial election that a platform focused on the economy and job creation is the highest priority... We believe that to achieve this we can’t tinker our way to success. The chamber believes it’s time to be bold and focus on growing our economy, creating jobs and leveraging our strengths through a strategic, focused and results driven approach." — Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dave Angus.
Did the politicians bite? Yes, a little. The chamber helped set the agenda of daily election coverage on thing such as hydro and arts funding which politicians then followed.
Putting Communities First
What it’s about: A new revenue deal for cities and towns so they can deal with a crippling backlog of road, sewer and other infrastructure repairs worth an estimated $11 billion. At issue is whether the province will part with another point of PST, giving municipalities an extra $240 million over and above what they get in infrastructure grants.
Who’s behind it: The Association of Manitoba Municipalities
Size of the campaign: Medium. The AMM wouldn’t say how much the campaign cost.
Where you’ve seen it: The "shabby playgrounds" radio ad that launched province-wide Sept. 6 as well as print ads in most daily newspapers. The AMM has asked every municipality to pass a resolution — 150 did — and write letters to the editor.
Quote: "The message is clear and simple: Our infrastructure deficit is crippling our communities, and downloading from other orders of government is just making matters worse. Municipalities cannot meet their new responsibilities without a steady, predictable revenue stream." — AMM President Doug Dobrowolski.
Did the politicians bite? Not really. Only Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said he would be willing to share another point of PST with cities and towns.
Keep Manitoba Hydro public
What it’s about: Heralding the value of a publicly-owned power company and reminding politicians — especially Tory ones — that most Manitobans don’t want to sell it. Cynics also say the campaign was meant to bolster the NDP’s claim that privatizing Manitoba Hydro is a legitimate possibility under a Tory government.
Who’s behind it: CUPE, with the aid of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and others.
Size of the campaign: Medium. The campaign cost $80,000, roughly.
Where you’ve seen it: On big blue billboards all over town, up since mid-summer. The billboards tout a poll the unions commissioned that shows that nine out of 10 Manitobans want to keep Hydro public.
Quote: "100% of the profits from Manitoba Hydro are re-invested in Manitoba. If privatized, rates will go up as shareholders will want to maximize profits, as was the case when MTS was sold. Electricity is an essential service and putting essential services in the hands of the private sector is a huge risk." — Mike Velie, IBEW Local 2034.
Did the politicians bite? The NDP sure did, slagging the Tories as secret privatizers at every chance. Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen was forced to spend a lot of airtime promising he would never sell Hydro.
Website: Information can be found at http://cupe.ca/privatization/energy-sector-unions-release-study
Smaller Class Sizes
What it’s about: Reducing class sizes in Kindergarten to Grade 3 to a maximum of 20 students.
Who’s behind it: Manitoba Teachers’ Society
Size of the campaign: Pretty sizeable.
Where you’ve seen it: TV ads featuring a hip dad touring modern classrooms, radio ads and a webpage for election-related news. The television ad was also featured online.
Quote: "While we know that there is no magic number for class size... we have recommended that early years’ classes be capped at 20 students and that class size decisions take into account the learning needs of all students." — former MTS President Pat Isaak in May.
Did the politicians bite? The NDP did. The party promised exactly what the MTS asked.