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Pallister must expand his universe

NDP is good at elections despite poor poll standings

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Has incumbency become the ultimate political trump card?

It's hard not to consider that question in the wake of Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's remarkable majority victory June 12.

Wynne went into the spring election with a minority government wracked by controversy and dogged by deficits and a woeful economy. Sensing her vulnerability, the NDP threatened a vote of non-confidence that triggered an election. It seemed likely this was the end of 11 years of Liberal rule in Ontario.

However, when the votes were counted, Wynne had won a big majority. It was a result that makes you wonder what an incumbent has to do to be voted out of office.

These are curious times where unpopular governments led by unpopular leaders somehow snatch victory from what looked like almost certain defeat.

Consider Alberta premier Alison Redford, who in the 2012 election, won a stunning majority after appearing on the verge of defeat. (She has since been ousted by her own party.)

A not-dissimilar result occurred in 2013, when B.C. Premier Christy Clark won a convincing majority after finding herself trailing the opposition NDP badly going into the May 14 election.

What lessons can be learned from these elections by, say, someone like Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, who is currently dominating the ruling NDP government in mid-term opinion polls?

First and foremost, waiting for voters to vote against an incumbent, rather than for another party, is a losing proposition. The B.C. and Alberta elections are proof an incumbent's unpopularity is not enough to ensure victory.

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak tried to command the campaign with a bold promise to fire 100,000 civil servants and create one million new jobs. The first was an open declaration of war against civil servants, while the second was a symphony of failed math discredited by economists and accountants of all political stripes.

Robert Ermel, director of operations for the Manitoba Institute of Policy Research, said opposition leaders looking to take down incumbents must find policies and pledges that "grow the universe" by connecting with the largest possible audience. Notwithstanding his decision to enrage civil servants, Hudak shrunk his universe by making bad math, and not Wynne's record, the central campaign issue, Ermel said.

"The message by the end of the campaign was pretty clear," Ermel said. "If you can't do the math, you don't deserve to form government."

Ermel noted, however, incumbents can and do make the same mistakes.

Quebec premier Pauline Marois had every reason to believe her Parti Québécois government would be re-elected this past April. The PQ was running neck and neck with the Liberals until some of her star candidates, most notably media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau, started talking about independence.

Marois knew independence was unpopular with a majority of Quebeckers. Ermel said by allowing sovereignty to become an issue, Marois not only shrunk her universe, she imploded it. The Liberals won a majority.

For Pallister, these elections represent a number of cautionary tales.

It would not be wise for Pallister to expect the NDP to fall prey to a Marois-like implosion in the next election. The NDP is good at elections, and despite its poor poll standings right now, there is every reason to believe Premier Greg Selinger and company will not die from a self-inflicted campaign wound.

This is most definitely a vote Pallister needs to go out and win, rather than waiting for Selinger to lose. To date, however, Pallister hasn't shown he knows how to grow his universe enough to make that happen.

For example, in the last week of the spring legislative session, Pallister announced Northern Lights, a bid to capture more votes and seats in northern Manitoba, a NDP stronghold. It's a good strategy for Pallister; the Tories must find a way of becoming more competitive in regions dominated by the more efficient and broadly based NDP.

Unfortunately, rather than expanding his universe by connecting with northerners, Pallister may have achieved the exact opposite by announcing his northern strategy from the comfort of his Winnipeg office. Anyone who understands the fierce northern vanity that exists in this province would know that is a losing strategy.

For Pallister, the teachable moment is pretty clear: If you are wooing a new constituency to expand your universe, remember to show up in person for that important first date.

Incumbency is a potent trump card, and opposition parties must find ways of expanding their universes if they hope to overcome its power.

However, as pretenders whose names we no longer remember can attest, that is a lot easier said than done.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2014 A10

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