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Tipping point in byelection?

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BRANDON -- In his bestselling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, author Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point."

It is too soon to discern if the past week's events represent a critical mass, threshold or boiling point in the Brandon-Souris byelection, but there is a growing sense that the Harper Conservatives are slowly losing their grip on what has been one of the safest Tory seats in the nation over the past six decades.

The problems for the Conservatives began with the surprise resignation of MP Merv Tweed in August, who jumped ship to become president of Omnitrax Canada.

The fact Tweed helped regulate that company through his former role as House of Commons transport committee chairman ignited conflict-of-interest allegations from the opposition. Those concerns have been amplified by Tweed's intention to have Omnitrax ship oil by rail to the Port of Churchill.

The dark cloud surrounding the circumstances of Tweed's departure would have dissipated by now if not for the even darker clouds that now envelope the botched process the Conservatives used to select a nominee to run for the party in the upcoming byelection.

Manitoba MLA Larry Maguire was acclaimed as the nominee after Brandon's deputy mayor, Len Isleifson, and the perceived front-runner, Chris Kennedy, were disqualified for failing to comply with Conservative party rules. Isleifson and Kennedy each deny they breached those rules, igniting a still-festering controversy that has incensed many local Conservatives.

At the top of that list is Killarney-Turtle Mountain Mayor Rick Pauls, who announced Tuesday that he will be running as an independent candidate in the byelection. A card-carrying Tory, Pauls told the Brandon Sun his "disgust" with the nomination process motivated his decision.

"They took away that democratic process from their party by doing it this way," he said. "They cannot dictate to us, that's not democracy... and I think people need a strong voice out there."

While independent candidates seldom impact election results, Pauls could play a significant role in the outcome of the Brandon-Souris contest.

Though he is just 42, he has been Killarney's mayor for six years and enjoys a high profile throughout the riding. Tweed swept the polls in and around Killarney in the 2011 general election. If that support shifts to Pauls, it will hurt the Tories' chances of holding Brandon-Souris.

Pauls' candidacy is an important development, but so was the presence of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Brandon on Tuesday. Each of Trudeau's events drew standing-room-only crowds, including a packed community reception at a local hotel ballroom that was attended by many prominent local Conservatives, including former Progressive Conservative MP Rick Borotsik.

A large above-the-fold colour photo on the front page of Wednesday's Brandon Sun of Trudeau with his arm around a smiling Borotsik -- wearing a Trudeau button on his shirt -- has shocked many of Maguire's supporters.

Borotsik is popular throughout Westman and his opinion still carries a lot of weight. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that photo in the Sun could be worth thousands of votes for the Liberals.

Two weeks ago, many Brandon-Souris Conservatives boasted the party could withstand almost any controversy and still emerge the winner in the riding by several thousand votes. The number of Tories still holding that view is on the decline, however, with the realization that the party's nomination mess, Pauls' candidacy, and Trudeau's growing popularity in the riding are each biting into support that had been taken for granted.

For Maguire, there has to be an awful sense of déjà vu. He was the PC candidate in 1993, but lost to Liberal candidate Glen McKinnon because of Tory scandals and a split right-wing vote. Twenty years later, he faces the same challenges, but an even stronger Liberal opponent in Rolf Dinsdale.

Has this week been a tipping point? The problem is they are hard to recognize when they happen but easier to see after the fact. Weeks from now, we may look back at the past several days as the moment when things changed Brandon-Souris.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 A15


Updated on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 7:32 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Isleifson, corrects typo

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