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Tories, anyone?

Anemic interest in leader's job a bad sign for Manitoba Progressive Conservatives

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It's quiet out there in Tory land. Maybe a bit too quiet.

With only nine months left until the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives gather to pick a new leader, there are no confirmed candidates.

Former Alliance party and Progressive Conservative MP Brian Pallister has been the most active. Party sources confirm Pallister's supporters have sold the required 1,000 party memberships needed to file as a candidate. He just hasn't filed yet, and that is a cause of concern in and of itself.

It was Pallister back in 2006 who had a good number of Tories in Manitoba convinced he was going to be the next leader of the provincial party. In January, just days after the Conservative party won its first minority government, Pallister announced he was considering a run at the provincial PC leadership. The party had just jettisoned leader Stuart Murray and it was a wide-open race to replace him. However, no sooner had he announced an interest in the provincial leadership than he took himself out of the running. He served two more uneventful years in Ottawa and then retired from politics.

Pallister has to be considered the front-runner in this latest edition of the Tory leadership, and he hasn't actually filed. And until he formally submits his nomination papers and publicly confirms his intentions, it's better to be cautious. Once a tease, always a tease.

Beyond Pallister, there are few options. MLA Heather Stefanson is rumoured to be interested, although at this stage she has said virtually nothing to help us gauge her interest. Same goes for MLA Kelvin Goertzen, who has expressed some interest but done little to show he's serious. Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge expressed some interest and then shortly thereafter dashed his own expectations.

Beyond the two MLAs, restaurateur Jerry Cianflone has been the only other candidate to publicly express some interest in the Tory leadership. Owner of a chain of pizza restaurants in Winnipeg, Brandon, Steinbach, Winkler and Calgary, Cianflone has been an outspoken critic of the justice system, although he says his interests in politics go well beyond justice reform.

And then the trail goes decidedly cold. If Manitoba Tories were hoping the leadership would attract a dynamic, telegenic, quotable outsider who could put a shock into the party, it looks as if they will be quite disappointed. That is not a shot at those who have expressed interest, but none of the prospective candidates is generating much excitement.

(I recently called a dozen or so opinion-leading Tories and asked them, "If you could recruit anyone into the leadership campaign, anyone at all, who would it be?" Remarkably, none of them could name a single person. They couldn't even come up with a dream list of candidates. That's bad.)

Why so little interest? When outgoing leader Hugh McFadyen resigned on election night last fall, he was in essence condemning the party to years more in the wilderness. McFadyen worked long and hard for five years to find an identity for a party that had lost all sense of what it stood for. He reformed candidate-selection processes, wrestled control of policy from the floor of the annual general meeting and brought in some good, young minds to help him bring the Tories back to power. Although some may wish him good riddance, for the most part McFadyen did right by his party. Last fall's improbable, anomalous election result, which saw the Tories get 31,000 additional votes and 44 per cent of the vote and still lose a seat, did not require McFadyen to resign. He should have continued the good fight, knowing that if he did not, the party would be starting over from scratch.

This is a party that was so upset about the 2003 election result -- an election the Tories had no chance of winning -- they threw leader Stuart Murray on his own sword. In the wake of the Tories' defeat in 1999, the party was left penniless and bereft of top political talent. Murray fought valiantly but did not have the money or the staff to compete with Gary Doer's NDP juggernaut. In a battle of wits with the NDP, 2003 was not just an unfair fight, it was a massacre.

With the likelihood that only Pallister is taking the leadership seriously, the Tories run the risk of engineering another debacle like the one that put Murray in the leader's office. In that 2000 race, party opinion leaders rich with hubris but not much else put all their backroom muscle behind the affable Murray and made it impossible for anyone else to mount a campaign. The result was that Murray was acclaimed, a surprisingly humiliating experience that dogged him during his entire stormy tenure.

Manitoba Tories need a full stage of candidates vying for the leadership in October. In other words, they need to show Manitobans this is a party worth fighting for. So far, they haven't done that.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2012 A5

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