Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pallister seeks northern exposure

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FLIN FLON -- While provincewide polls give them a commanding lead over the NDP, northern Manitoba is a tough nut to crack for the Progressive Conservatives.

Which is why Brian Pallister made his first visit to the region as Opposition leader at least a year-and-a-half before Manitobans decide whether to crown him premier.

Pallister's meetings with civic leaders in Thompson and Flin Flon last month informed his in-progress northern strategy.

"We're looking to develop a northern strategy, but we're not looking to develop it in Winnipeg and then mail it to you," Pallister told me during his stop in Flin Flon.

Northerners, wary of provincial politicians and their capital-centric affliction of "perimeteritus," love to hear that kind of talk.

What they don't love are provincial politicians coloured anything but orange, as a coalition of aboriginals and unions has turned the NDP into the Northern Dominance Party.

The last northern MLA to carry the PC banner was Ken MacMaster in Thompson in 1981. In The Pas, Flin Flon and Kewatinook (formerly Rupertsland), the Tories have been on the outside looking in since 1969.

How can Pallister turn the tide? By hitting the New Democrats where they are vulnerable.

Pallister has been unyielding in his disparagement of the NDP's handling of Manitoba Hydro.

For all of the supposed cost-containment measures the NDP has endorsed (or forced), Manitobans simply see higher hydro bills each and every year.

Northerners pay a particularly heavy price when electricity rates rise. Not only do they consume an awful lot of power by virtue of their long, cold and isolating winters, they are also, on the whole, the poorest people in the province.

Even NDP-friendly First Nations people are fed up. As CBC reported, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents most northern reserves, opposed a 2013 hydro increase on the grounds that low-income aboriginals couldn't afford it.

Pallister is smart to make hay of hydro rates. For northerners especially, the (documented) reality the NDP will more than double our bills over the next 20 years is far more frightening than the (mudslinging) allegation Pallister would privatize Manitoba Hydro.

On crime, Pallister has a reputation for toughness, though he didn't exactly sound like a Texas sheriff when addressing his audience in Thompson, a city with very real safety challenges.

Pallister, as quoted by the Thompson Citizen, said some crime is inevitable in a "young, growing community," adding, however, there are "issues that have to be addressed."

Crime is a perceived weak spot for the NDP. While it's unlikely he could erase the societal factors that contribute to distressing northern crime rates, Pallister can at least exploit this weakness by promising rational new approaches.

To capitalize on his own perceived strength in the business sector, Pallister could formulate a plan to restore Manitoba to mining greatness.

Between 2007 and 2013, the province slid from first to 26th internationally in the esteemed Fraser Institute's Survey of Mining Companies. With most mining happening in the north, it is this region feeling the squeeze.

Pallister could even propose relatively minor investments, such as restoring a Greyhound subsidy, jettisoned by the NDP, that permitted more regular and expansive highway bus travel around the wide-ranging north.

None of this is to suggest the New Democrats' northern record is one to run away from completely. Their tax and rate hikes may drive up the cost of living, but some key investments elevate the quality of life.

The NDP is injecting serious dollars into northern infrastructure, including $187 million to upgrade Highway 6, an all-important, notoriously treacherous, link with Winnipeg.

The government has also worked to bolster efficiencies in health care by merging the two major northern health authorities and made accessible post-secondary education a priority with University College of the North.

For his part, Pallister isn't writing off any northern seats. He points out that over time, dominant parties can become weak and weak parties dominant.

True enough. But making inroads in northern Manitoba remains a tall order for the famously towering Opposition leader.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2014 A13

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