Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The one and lonely

Tory acclamations haven't helped

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Perhaps it's unfair to expect Brian Pallister to feel bad about the fact he is the only candidate in the race to lead Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives.

After all, being the only candidate is a pretty good way to guarantee a win. And like all serious politicians, Pallister is in this race to win it.

On the other hand, being the only candidate will ultimately create some awkward moments, both for Pallister and the party he seeks to lead. First of all, there will be questions about why nobody else sees this as a job worth fighting for. It also means Pallister must be overly cautious to ensure he is not campaigning against himself.

So far, so good for Pallister. He is not garnering a lot of media attention, but when he does poke his head up from a long and lonely process of travelling around the province to attend small meetings with party members, he is charming, knowledgeable and clear of thought. At 6-8, he's an imposing figure. And most importantly, he does not pause awkwardly when asked about the lack of other candidates.

"The fact is that I am the first and last choice for everyone at this point," Pallister said in a live webcast interview at the Free Press News Café last week. "I would hope that I have a consensus of support around my candidacy. So, at this point, I have mixed emotions around whether I want to see many other people in the race. I'd like to get on with the work."

Regrettably, the Manitoba Conservative leadership has not been a particularly competitive affair in the past 13 years. Stuart Murray was acclaimed in 2000 and in 2006, Hugh McFadyen won on the first ballot facing just two challengers. It cannot be a good thing when the sum total of all the men who have sought the Tory leadership over the past 13 years can fit into a Honda Civic hatchback.

The reality is acclamations and non-competitive leadership races are a curse. Murray, for example, never really recovered from being acclaimed. Ultimately, he was forced into a leadership review vote at the party's 2005 annual general meeting. Despite receiving 55 per cent support, he resigned.

Based on that painful experience, how did the Tories end up back in the same predicament? Opinions vary of course, but many believe a change in eligibility requirements may have played a role. This time, instead of just writing a cheque, candidates were asked to go out and sell 1,000 memberships at $10 apiece. At first blush, that did not seem to be a major hurdle, but it has since sparked a lot of debate about whether it is just enough of a nuisance to keep others from entering the race. Especially when there was a federal and provincial election last year and many conservatives are tapped out. There was enough concern the party decided to allow a member in good standing's renewal, even though the membership was not expired, to qualify as one of the 1,000 new members.

Pallister, who obviously did find enough new members, dismissed concerns about the new requirement.

"Frankly, if that's too daunting a task, I don't think you're going to be the leader of a provincial party."

It's a good answer, but it does not erase the central flaw of a single-candidate race: Party members, and the broader voting public, never really get a clear picture of exactly what the new leader is all about. Acclaimed leaders do not get the media exposure from a competitive leadership convention. Simply put, there cannot be a "convention bounce" in opinion polls without a convention.

In fact, a lack of opponents means the sole candidate is encouraged to say as little as possible. In 2000, Murray knew he not only didn't need to reveal a platform, it was contraindicated. The party rank and file were already grumbling about the fact that, after 18 years as leader, Filmon had become estranged from the membership. An all-too-convenient complaint when a party is finally defeated after a long time in government, Murray played along with the charade, promising his policies would be forged after he became leader by consulting the ubiquitous "grassroots."

Pallister is very much in that same space now. Rather than announcing a leadership campaign platform, Pallister has only one policy: consult with the grassroots. And like Murray, he claims his silence on issues is a gesture of respect to the membership. However, there is an argument that the grassroots might be better served if they knew more about Pallister's world view. Otherwise, the Tories are getting an unknown quantity, a particularly problematic situation for a party that has struggled to regain its brand.

Like Murray and McFadyen, Pallister is a promising, capable politician who possesses the tools necessary to succeed as a leader. Unfortunately, like Murray, it appears right now he will not have to prove his mettle in a leadership vote. And that means Pallister will have to show rather quickly that he can overcome the curse of acclamation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2012 A7

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