BRANDON -- With a ballooning provincial debt, higher taxes and the likelihood of years of greater-than-inflation hydro-rate increases, Manitoba's New Democrats know they aren't going to win the next election if the dominant issue is their management of provincial finances. They think, however, they can win a campaign that asks voters to choose the party that most closely reflects their values. If the strategy seems familiar, it should.
For several decades, right-wing American political strategists have exploited such "wedge" social issues as same-sex marriage and abortion to convince low- and moderate-income social conservatives to support Republican candidates, even though those candidates support policies that would threaten the economic interests of many of those same conservatives.
The next election is more than two years away, but the Selinger government is attempting a variation of the wedge strategy, by using "progressive" social issues to persuade moderate and otherwise fiscally conservative urban residents to support NDP candidates even though doing so would be contrary to their economic self-interest in balanced budgets, lower taxes and affordable hydro rates.
The Selinger government is already working to convince moderate Manitobans only the NDP has the values needed to address issues they care about. They are sending that message with the implementation of a sweeping pesticide ban, with Bill 7, which seeks to increase the supply of affordable housing, and Bill 18, the anti-bullying amendments to the Public Schools Act.
They are driving the point home by including "poison pill" language in legislation, hoping to provoke the opposition Tories into taking extreme positions that would offend moderate Manitobans.
Bill 7, for example, contains provisions empowering municipalities to force private developers and new-home purchasers to subsidize the cost of affordable housing projects. Though Bill 18 could accomplish its anti-bullying objectives without specific reference to gay-straight alliances, the phrase is included for tactical reasons.
The two bills raise hot-button issues that are intended to antagonize the Progressive Conservative base, forcing new Leader Brian Pallister to either antagonize that base or take positions that the NDP can attack as insensitive, intolerant and, in the case of Bill 18, homophobic.
"Bill 18 appears to be a political trap for the PCs," Curtis Brown of Probe Research says "It catches them between their base and their need to appear moderate to voters in suburban Winnipeg -- which they have largely failed to do in the past three elections."
"It also catches both parties in a bind, however, in terms of their ongoing efforts to maintain and attract the support of recent immigrants, many of whom live in Winnipeg's suburbs," he added. "The opposition of various religious groups to Bill 18 could be a problem for the NDP if that legislation is seen as an infringement on their religious beliefs and community autonomy."
Brown is correct in his assessment of the risk inherent in the NDP's strategy. For more than a decade, the party has owned the centre of Manitoba's political spectrum, and they have been rewarded with four straight majority governments.
By attempting to exploit divisive social issues to their tactical advantage, however, they are retreating toward the NDP's traditional terrain on the left. It is the same mistake former NDP premier Howard Pawley made in the 1980s, and it has created an opportunity that the Tories are now seeking to capitalize upon with socially sensitive policies of their own.
Pallister's call this week for a hefty increase in the shelter allowance for Manitobans living on social assistance is the kind of centrist proposal that challenges the NDP's accusation that the Tories do not care about Manitoba's poor, and it is just the start.
Conservative sources indicate the shelter allowance proposal is the first of a number of moderate polices that will be rolled out over the coming months, as Pallister seeks to lay claim to the centre and rebuild Tory support inside the Perimeter.
It is often said Canada's federal politics are in a state of "permanent campaign." The same is now true in Manitoba. The tactical moves by the NDP and Tories indicate the 2015 election campaign has already begun.
Deveryn Ross is a political
commentator living in Brandon.