Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberal Leader Gerrard gets one job done

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In so many ways, Jon Gerrard deserved to go back to the legislature to represent River Heights. And so he will. Well done, Mr. Gerrard.

A level-headed gentleman who puts thoughtful policy ahead of partisan gamesmanship, he leads a rump of a party that nonetheless presented most of this campaign's few good ideas.

And he won his riding, close as it was, while having pounded the pavement around Winnipeg for a party on the verge of evaporating.

I think we can probably thank the 11th-hour stunts by Anita Neville and John Harvard in Seine River, where they came out to support the NDP's Theresa Oswald shortly before the wrap-up, for the fact that Gerrard was re-elected.

No fair, the voters replied. (And while we're on the topic, it was galling to see Neville gushing all over Jon Gerrard's accomplishments on CBC Tuesday night.)

The Progressive Conservatives' Marty Morantz was a strong contender, but it was just such a low blow that Neville and Harvard delivered that swing voters in River Heights, toying with the idea of going Tory, fell back to support Gerrard out of a sense of compassion for the man who, even while he must have been sorely tempted, took the hit with grace and dignity.

How could you not want a man like that in public office?

But last night's results and today's reality merely give pause to the inevitable. The party is down to one seat -- in 2007 it returned two representatives to the legislature -- and at a popular vote lower than the Liberals have seen since 1981, when it sent no one to Broadway.

It has been obvious for some time that while it is Jon Gerrard's earnest effort that gets him elected, he cannot pulled the party up. His presence in the legislature has saved the Liberal Party of Manitoba from fading to black on the political landscape, but he cannot light a fire among the electorate.

Last night, Jon Gerrard seemed to concede just that. He didn't resign, he's staying in the legislature for the term. BUT:

"I'm not going to talk about my future tonight except to say that I'm looking forward to serving the people of River Heights for four more years."

That's as close as the steadfast tin soldier has ever come to a tilt on the question of his leadership.

But the blame for being mired is carried by all Manitoba Liberals, too.

It might be unfair (there's that word again) to judge the merit of the leader, and of the party's support, after a campaign that revealed the NDP's lock on the centre of the political spectrum -- home ground for Liberals.

Yet, this was an election campaign of opportunity, as well. So many voters in this campaign were openly disillusioned with the lack of choice on offer. On the promises and the issues that topped the public mind, you could hardly see a glimmer of light between the Tories and the NDP.

Jon Gerrard is a hard man not to like: he's the guy you'd want at the table when you need the straight talk of a real friend who is wise and will deliver the truth, compassionately but unvarnished; he is the guy you would trust to hold the proceeds of the sale of the farm while you're driving to the city to look for another job.

Manitoba has been fortunate to have him holding government accountable -- he doesn't believe in simply scoring points with sensational 20-second clips for the evening news, he had clear options for doing a better job.

All honourable and good, fine qualities that many in the political arena could not easily boast. But inspiring voters with political vision is not Gerrard's long suit. If you asked the man what his vision is for Manitoba, you'd better pour yourself an espresso and keep the pot close.

Too many Liberals have whispered as much and it was no secret in this campaign that many of them are frustrated with leadership.

For Manitoba, a third party in the legislature is useful, even more so now as the Tories condemn themselves to run in the shadow of the NDP. In this election, they adopted the worst of the NDP's characteristics -- we'll see your 2014 and raise it to 2018; you say 1,700 nurses? We'll hire 2,000. Yeesh. A telling sign of the Progressive Conservatives' infatuation with retail politics was Hugh McFadyen's near inability to define the ideological divide between the Tories and the NDP during a meeting with the Free Press editorial board last week. (On a third try, he finally described the conservative belief that government supports the people, it doesn't control the people.) There's lots on the table for a third party to grab, arguably more so now that McFadyen is stepping aside and the Tories are regrouping. But let's have a party that is honestly interested in politics and about its possibilities and Manitoba's potential.

I congratulate Jon Gerrard.

The Liberals live to fight another day. But let's call this for what it is: a form of life support, a prolonging of political death. Too bad.

Jon Gerrard hinted he's ready for a reckoning. The Liberals should act with similar maturity: Take a hard look at itself and either pull the plug, or find a leader that can rebuild.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2011 A10

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