Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Roblin-Doer parallels are many, and significant

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When Gary Doer was re-elected to a third majority government in 2007, it was only the second time in the modern era that such a result had been achieved: the earlier example was provided by Duff Roblin and the Progressive Conservatives who, in 1959, had won a minority government followed by three successive majorities. On election night 2007, commentators speculated on the possibility that Doer might eventually surpass Roblin's record by making it four in a row -- and, as the NDP continued to enjoy significant leads in most polls, that possibility remained right up to this week.

However, Doer has chosen to leave while still in office and still on top; coincidentally, the last premier to do that was, again, Duff Roblin. Early on, both came to believe that 10 years was enough time in the job and certainly long enough to achieve whatever they were capable of. In both cases, it is true, there was an external inducement: for Doer, the prospect of becoming Canadian ambassador to Washington; for Roblin, the possibility -- ultimately unrealized -- of becoming national leader of his party and prime minister of Canada.

Reflecting on it, other parallels come to mind. Roblin provided progressive leadership in a party in which the right, especially in the rural areas, was powerful.

Doer provided moderate leadership in which the left, if not so powerful, was respected and, historically, influential.

Roblin, in my view, was the most significant Manitoba premier of the 20th century and one whose impact and influence endures -- and in more than just the floodway.

One rough-and-ready measure of this might be seen in his selection (by Free Press readers and CBC listeners) as the Greatest Manitoban. Such phenomena, involving the "greatest" anything, should be taken with the appropriate dose of salt, but that a living politician should receive such recognition says something which is surely something out of the ordinary.

That point is made for the purpose of saying that, in a fundamental way (and quite apart from similarities like electoral success), Doer is the most successful premier we have had since Roblin. Ed Schreyer and Sterling Lyon may each have been bolder and more radical; and Howard Pawley and Gary Filmon may each have confronted more unexpected issues and governed in more difficult times, but Doer, like Roblin, may prove to have been a transformative premier, one who actually shifted the province's political centre of gravity.

Despite a lurch to the right -- and electoral defeat -- following Roblin, the Progressive Conservatives came close to being the province's "natural governing party", by which I mean not only the party that governed most of the time, but the party perceived as reflecting mainstream opinion -- as opposed to the NDP which won elections but were seen by many as ideologues and interlopers. Schreyer brought the NDP to major party status; and Pawley consolidated that position but their party was still seen as "outside."

During the last decade those roles, it seems to me, have been reversed: the Progressive Conservatives have become the ideologues and ones, moreover, increasingly confined -- under Doer -- to a rural and shrinking base. On Thursday, Doer said explicitly that he found the old left-right cleavages of little relevance in the kind of society we have become. Though ideologues on both sides will disagree with him on that, he was unmistakably speaking the language of a centrist and, as he has demonstrated persuasively, winning coalitions of voters can be assembled on that premise. In the future, new situations may call for new approaches but among those now being touted as prospective successors, none seem obvious or likely candidates to re-orient the party significantly when Doer is gone.

If that is so, it is powerful testimony to Doer's skill and success.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2009 A14

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