Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Doer dynasty, or aberration?

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ON the morning after the 2007 provincial election, the dawn of the "Doer Dynasty" was proclaimed in this newspaper.

Easily re-elected as premier the previous evening, Gary Doer had won a stunning third majority victory, taking 36 seats in the provincial election and consigning the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties to another four long, demoralizing years in opposition.

Yet the impressiveness of Doer's third-term victory -- something no other premier since Duff Roblin has accomplished -- was far more fleeting than the term "dynasty" implies.

For something to be described as a dynasty, it must be able to endure beyond a single individual, continuing from one successor to the next despite whatever trials and tribulations may emerge in the future.

In that sense, the party that presently governs this province hardly qualifies as a dynasty. Rather, it is an impressive-looking political fortress, yet one that may turn out to be built entirely on a foundation of sand.

Either one of Doer's would-be successors, Greg Selinger or Steve Ashton, will inherit a party that owes far too much of its recent political success to the populist charm of its outgoing leader. Resounding numbers of Manitobans have consistently backed "Gary Doer and Today's NDP" for the past decade, giving the party three majority governments and an ever-increasing share of seats in the Manitoba legislature. But there is absolutely no guarantee voters in this province will back Doer's successor with the same vigour and enthusiasm that they have shown for the outgoing premier.

True, the NDP appears to be safely ensconced in power for now, and the early polling returns suggest the party's overall popularity has not significantly changed since Doer announced he was stepping down and taking up residence at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

There is no guarantee this trend will last, however -- and if past history and present rhetoric are any guide, it won't.

There has only been one true political dynasty in Manitoba history. The Liberal-Progressive coalition that governed Manitoba from 1922 to 1958 produced two seamless transitions in the party's leadership. However, the dynasty of premiers John Bracken, Stuart Garson and Douglas Campbell offers no template for the present-day New Democrats, as it included stretches where the leaders of several parties governed the province collectively and declared it would take a "non-partisan" approach to governing.

Today, with the electorate polarized between the NDP and Progressive Conservative party, and with both parties extolling the individual merits of its respective leaders, the choice for Manitobans in the next election is much starker.

Add to that the fact no single party has won four majority governments since the First World War, and you have a situation where it will be quite difficult for the next leader of the NDP to secure his party a fourth term in office.

Continuing the dynasty would have been hard enough for even a politician of Doer's calibre, but it would seem his successor is going to have an especially difficult time winning that fourth term.

First, both Selinger and Ashton will struggle to connect with the voters of this province in the way that Doer did. They not only lack his folksy, populist charm, but also likely lack the same finely tuned political antennae that are sensitive enough to grasp what Manitobans want and don't want from their government.

This was always going to be a handicap for whoever succeeded Doer, but it will be especially difficult for the next NDP leader since Manitoba's New Democrats have relied upon charismatic leaders more popular than their party to sell Manitobans on the merits of an NDP government.

As well, judging by the debates waged during the recent leadership campaign, the party is about to shift further left upon Doer's departure.

With Selinger, the province's finance minister for the past decade, now publicly dismissive of the need to run balanced budgets every year and Ashton keen to spend millions upon millions to move the Weston rail yards and build a new high-speed transit line to Transcona, the NDP appears set to abandon any semblance of fiscal caution and start spending like the New Democrats of old.

When the Manitoba NDP gets away from its winning formula -- selling a populist leader and governing in a cautious, risk-averse manner -- it is likely to alienate voters and hand government back to the Progressive Conservatives by default.

This happened in the 1980s, when it mismanaged the province's finances in such a way that it drove the party to a third-place finish in the 1988 election.

Should the winning candidate steer the party further left and fail to connect with Manitobans as Doer did, the Tories will be itching to face either Selinger or Ashton in the next provincial election, as both men appear willing to depart from the cautious, pragmatic approach that marked the Doer decade, and put the NDP onto far-less-firm political ground.

As modern political parties become less defined by their core principles and more by the personal style and whims of whomever happens to lead them at a given time, even the most enduring political dynasties are one retirement or a few bad decisions away from collapse. (Just ask the federal Liberals).

If the NDP dynasty comes crashing to an end two years from now, the Doer era will appear to be an interregnum -- an aberration made possible by personal popularity and pragmatism rather than an enduring testament to the party's strength in Manitoba.

 

The former editorial page editor of the Brandon Sun, Curtis Brown is currently a graduate student in political science at the University of Manitoba who writes about local and provincial politics on his blog, Endless Spin Cycle (endlessspin.blogspot.com).

 

ctbrown7@yahoo.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 16, 2009 A14

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