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Political landscape is now muddied

Tories, Liberals have better shot to dethrone NDP

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Now that the smoke has cleared from Gary Doer's dramatic announcement on Thursday, it's becoming clear just how big a hole he is leaving behind in the Manitoba political economy.

Doer's decision to resign as premier and move on to be Canada's ambassador in Washington has not only kicked off a profound reconfiguration of the Manitoba NDP, but sparked change in the other parties as well.

There's no getting around the fact the political universe in this province has undergone a massive shift.

For the NDP, the race to succeed Doer will be a watershed event. Not just because New Democrats will be picking both a new leader and a new premier, but also because so many of the veteran MLAs who went along for the ride with Doer will be leaving politics before the next election.

Doer confirmed in this space last week that a cabinet shuffle scheduled for early October will see some of the longest-serving cabinet ministers step aside because they do not plan to run in the next provincial election.

Most of those most likely to leave -- Justice Minister Dave Chomiak, Post-Secondary Education Minister Dianne McGifford and Culture and Heritage Minister Eric Robinson -- dropped out of sight Friday so it's not known who will stay and who will go.

As for the new leader, none of the most likely suspects -- Health Minister Theresa Oswald, Competitiveness and Training Minister Andrew Swan and veteran MP turned MLA Bill Blaikie -- have wandered anywhere near a notepad or microphone in the last 48 hours.

If Blaikie sits this one out, and he should, then Manitoba's NDP will in all likelihood be led by a politician who is in his or her 40s, one entire generation younger than Doer. As a result, in the 2011 election we will see a battle between two of the youngest and least experienced politicians ever to lead parties into battle in Manitoba.

Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, 42, has long dreamed of an opportunity to fight an election where he didn't have to deal with the eclipsing presence of Doer. He'll get his wish in the next vote, but he'll have to show Manitobans and his own party's rank-and-file that he knows what to do when opportunity knocks.

McFadyen and the Tories tried to play the youth card in the last election but despite being almost 20 years younger than the premier, it failed to shake support for Doer and the NDP. Now, McFadyen will face someone who will be the same generation, which means he'll have to rely on something other than youthful charm. And he has yet to show us what else he has in his arsenal.

The best thing that could happen for the Tories is if, along with Doer, some of the best and brightest NDP strategists and organizers move on as well. If they leave, the NDP's capacity to wage and win elections will be diminished regardless of who becomes the next leader.

It will be essential that staff such as Michael Balagus, Doer's chief of staff, stay on to work with the new leader. Balagus is a keen political strategist and ruthless organizer, and he and his kind make up the backbone of the NDP's powerful election machine.

The inability to retain experienced political staff in a leadership transition can be fatal. It certainly contributed to the destruction of McFadyen's predecessor, Stuart Murray.

When former premier Gary Filmon resigned after losing power in 1999, he took with him a cadre of organizers, strategists and advisers who helped him win three elections. Murray was cast adrift with a cast of backroom misfits and underachievers who, to no one's surprise, drove the affable Murray's political aspirations off a cliff.

There is, however, one other factor to consider when handicapping the battle between McFadyen and the yet-to-be-named NDP leader: the influence of the Liberal Party of Manitoba.

Under the stewardship of Jon Gerrard, the Liberals have become a good luck charm for the NDP. Gerrard's underwhelming leadership in particular has meant the NDP has captured centre-left voters from the Liberals. A strong Liberal party would limited Doer's ability to win suburban seats in Winnipeg.

There is no indication that Gerrard will study Doer's departure and see that there has never been a better time for him to step down. A new, more marketable Liberal leader could, if the NDP picks the wrong leader, put the Grits back in the game, which would help the Tories to no end.

We don't know when the NDP will select a new leader. We don't know who it will be. And we certainly don't know what McFadyen and Gerrard will do between now and then. But it's going to be some big-time fun finding out.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2009 A5

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