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Whither the 'conservative' party in Manitoba?

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Is Manitoba about to get a new political party? The answer is a definite maybe. Or maybe not. It depends.

There is clearly frustration in some parts with a provincial political climate that has led to four elections in a row with almost identical results -- NDP majorities with 32 to 37 seats in the legislature, facing Progressive Conservative oppositions with 24 to 19 seats.

There have even been some informal discussions about whether a Manitoba Party could be formed along the lines of the Saskatchewan Party that Brad Wall led to power over the New Democrats.

A group has registered the Manitoba Party name and a website called manitobaforward.ca and has even issued a printed pamphlet outlining 10 principles of the party.

It is likely to be the subject of talk in the hallways at the annual meeting of Progressive Conservatives, who get together this weekend in Winnipeg to hear from their new leader, Brian Pallister.

But the idea is still very much in the shadows. For starters, no one is rushing to lead this parade. The website is "under development" and people are reluctant to be quoted on the record about the new party.

Peter Holle, president of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, was quoted in a Winnipeg Free Press story on the party and then quickly issued a statement to clarify his stance, saying "neither I nor the centre is involved in founding a new political entity."

What is frustrating to anyone who is not a New Democrat in Manitoba is the inability to break through the NDP stranglehold on power, entrenched by Gary Doer, and continued by Greg Selinger. The NDP will have been in power for 16 years when the next election is held in October 2015.

Under former leader Hugh McFadyen, the Conservatives got 44 per cent of the popular vote in the election one year ago, but had exactly the same seat total -- 19 -- as they did in 2007.

How frustrating was it for the PCs? Consider this -- their popular vote was higher in 2011 than the last time they won power. They formed a majority government with 43 per cent of the vote in 1995. The Liberals, who used to siphon off votes from both the Conservatives and NDP, are no longer significant players in most constituencies.

Part of the challenge for the PCs is that change comes very slowly in Manitoba politics. For decades Conservatives have had a stronghold in the largely rural ridings in southern Manitoba outside Winnipeg while the NDP has its base in the city and in the north.

Ridings rarely change hands and the NDP is very good at looking after the seats the party holds. The party won 37 seats with 46 per cent of the vote in 2011, almost twice as many as the Conservatives with just two percentage points more of the vote.

One thing working against a possible new political party is the long decline of the Liberals. The provincial political contest has been narrowed, effectively, to a two-party system. There is much less chance of a non-NDP coalition forming outside the PCs because they already are a single, cohesive alternative to the New Democrats.

The two-party system, however, is not one that has produced clearly different choices for voters. Doer and Selinger have done an excellent job of keeping the NDP in the middle of the political spectrum, the same place the Conservatives are trying to occupy.

Many voters likened the 2011 election to being on a bus and trying to decide who would drive. One thing they knew for certain was that the bus was not changing directions.

Recent PC leaders have shied away from some of the more right-wing policies that have distinguished conservative parties elsewhere -- such as opposing photo radar.

Pallister, a former provincial cabinet minister and federal MP, was acclaimed leader this summer and one of his first acts was to commission a survey of party members.

A very straightforward message came back: They want to be clearly conservative.

"By far the most articulated concern from membership in terms of how they view their membership is that they desire the party to put forward a clear set of principles that differentiate us in the minds of Manitobans," a report on the consultations said.

"They expressed their frustration that recent election campaigns have not done enough to distinguish us from our political opponents and have not clearly represented their views as Progressive Conservatives."

Now that the frustration has been clearly stated, it will be Pallister's job to give shape to a set of policies that sets up a very different electoral contest in 2015. How well he does, and how quickly he moves, will be a big factor in whether a Manitoba Party ever emerges from the shadows.

 

Bob Cox is the publisher

of the Winnipeg Free Press.

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2012 A10

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

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