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Why lead when you can follow?

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I don't know if Manitoba Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie shops on Sunday, but if he does, it would be just another example of how people change with the times.

For Blaikie, an ordained minister, it would be a very significant adjustment, indeed. When the Lord's Day Act was struck down in 1985, Blaikie, then a federal NDP MP, bitterly opposed any move to turn Sunday into just another shopping day.

"To my mind," he told the Globe and Mail in 1986, "Sunday shopping is one of the final victories of capitalism, of Mammon, and the idolatry of commodity fetishism. Our Constitution says that we recognize the supremacy of God. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of Sunday shopping, why do we not drop the pretence and rewrite it to read supremacy of the marketplace?"

Gary Doer also opposed wide-open Sunday shopping when he was leader of the Opposition, but for him the considerations were political, not theological.

Labour unions, particularly the United Food and Commercial Workers, were opposed to Sunday shopping, while the Tories under Premier Gary Filmon feared the idea might be unpopular with some of their rural ridings.

The Tories eventually passed compromise legislation that permits stores to open between noon and six on Sundays, confident it was the right thing to do, even if it might cost them some support.

That kind of thinking, however, has largely evaporated from the political scene in Manitoba. It's been replaced with the cynical notion that political parties should satisfy all the people all the time, that they should avoid controversy, even when the political risks seem minimal.

Of course, a political party that purports to represent every interest stands for nothing in the end.

Sunday shopping, and the current debate about banning smoking in outdoor parks, are examples of how risk aversion paralyzes political parties.

Nearly two-thirds of Manitobans support the idea of allowing retailers to set their own hours, including on Sundays. But as far as the NDP is concerned, there's no percentage in changing the law.

The political calculation is simple: Why upset one-third of the people with a law that probably won't improve your existing level of support? In the case of the NDP, there's the additional problem of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which reminded the government in December it still strongly opposes any further liberalization of Sunday shopping laws.

The math is the same for the Tories. Leader Hugh McFadyen says he doesn't support wide-open Sunday shopping for the same reasons as the NDP -- to give workers a day (actually a morning) of rest. Like the New Democrats, he sees no political advantage in changing the law because it doesn't seem to be a priority issue for the majority of voters.

Manitoba is the most backwards province in Canada in terms of Sunday shopping laws and it is likely to remain so until the perceived risk of joining the modern world falls to near zero.

The province's position would be acceptable if it was based on the protection of some vital right of the minority, but no such principle exists in the case of Sunday shopping. Opposition to the idea seems to be based on the idea that workers need time off on the weekend, even though thousands of people toil on Sundays in industries not protected by retail labour laws. Manitoba's Employment Standards Code also allows retail workers to refuse Sunday work without fear of retaliation, if they provide the employer with 14 days' notice.

The experience of other provinces, moreover, is that liberalized Sunday laws do not result in stores dramatically extending their hours of operation.

The government's reaction to a request to ban smoking in outdoor public places was equally painful to watch. The NDP has staked a strong position on smoking -- it's bad for you -- but controversy is even worse for the health of the party.

City councillors -- displaying their own reluctance to tackle issues that generate phone calls -- passed the request to the province, which responded by saying it won't deal with the matter, but offered encouragement to the city to move forward with "proactive action."

Smokers today are a beaten, defeated, shrinking group of addicts, many of whom feel like lepers in public (I know because I'm one of those reprobates from time to time) but for the NDP, any attempt to restrict them further represents a potential political hazard.

The NDP would like the city to ban smoking in outdoor places because it believes it's the right thing to do, it just doesn't want to do it itself.

For their part, McFadyen's Tories get credit for saying the province should implement the ban, but it's hardly an act of political heroism. Less than one in five Manitobans are smokers and many of them are too ashamed of their habit to be seen smoking at their kids' soccer games.

It's unlikely the Tories will lose any support over the issue.

As for Bill Blaikie, he doesn't smoke, but if the scourge of Big Tobacco is ever eliminated, I wonder if he will see it as a small defeat for capitalism.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2011 A10

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