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There'll be heavy traffic on the low road

NDP, Tories will mount a negative slugfest

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It is perhaps the most common, time-tested narrative in electoral politics: the battle between those who espouse the need for change, and those who would have you fear change.

It’s a byproduct of the fact that parliamentary democracy pits incumbents against opposition challengers. The incumbent governments naturally want voters to fear change and embrace the status quo. Fear of change may be clearly enunciated, or it may just be implied in campaigns that simply ask you to return an incumbent with a renewed mandate.

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Challengers, of course, want voters to develop an appetite for change. A desire for change is sometimes based on hard issues of competency or performance but often it’s more of a hard-to-define, generalized sense that it’s time to give someone else a chance to govern.

So, it’s not surprising this Manitoba provincial election will at its heart feature a battle between the incumbent NDP (fear change) against the principal challenger, the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives (embrace change). However, while this is a tried and true narrative, there will be a distinct Manitoba flavour to this storyline in this election.

First and foremost, the Manitoba race will follow an evolving trend in Canadian elections that has seen incumbents not only sell the idea of fearing change, but also explicitly attack the leaders of opposition parties.

Jared Wesley, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Manitoba, said it was not all that long ago that incumbent governments wouldn’t even mention the name of an opposition leader or party. Now, both at the federal and provincial level, it’s become fashionable to take direct aim at those leaders and call them out by name. Pre-writ attack advertisements, made practical by fixed-date election laws that lay out specific pre-writ advertising periods, now define parties and leaders before a single campaign sign goes up.

The Manitoba NDP are so deeply into their fear-change mode, and so preoccupied with attacking the Tories, that they have for the most part refused to suggest that a change in leadership, which took place when Selinger replaced former premier Gary Doer in 2009, would lead to a renewal of the party.

New leaders often give political parties a chance to sell the public on the idea that, although it’s still an incumbent government, it has been reborn "new and improved." This allows the incumbent to sell the idea of moderate change. Not real change, but a fine-tuning of a long-serving government. Wesley noted that rather than embracing the theme of "safe change," Selinger has instead tried to convince Manitobans there has been no fundamental change in the NDP approach to governing, despite the fact he is a fundamentally different leader than Doer.

By rejecting the whole idea of "safe change," Wesley believes both the NDP and Tories are playing with fire. Safe change was the winning formula for Doer in 1999 when he toppled the long-serving government of Tory Premier Gary Filmon. In that campaign, the NDP ran a deliberately low-key, uncomplicated campaign that at times acknowledged that they would not change certain Filmon policies that were working for the province. The NDP voted for the Filmon budget in the spring of 1999 and made it clear during the campaign they would not abandon popular measures like the balanced-budget law.

Throughout Manitoba political history, there are examples of voters flocking to the parties of "safe change" regardless of whether they are in government or opposition. "This is a message that has won in Manitoba many times," said Wesley. "‘Let’s keep what works and then move forward.’ It’s an approach that preaches management progress and it has been a key for al the parties that have really succeeded in Manitoba politics."

Instead of safe change, the Tories and NDP are dishing up a toxic mix of negative, fearful advertisements that clearly show that neither is willing to take the high road for fear of losing ground to their opponents. The federal Liberal party failed to respond in kind to the Tory’s prolonged, pre-election attack campaign on leader Michael Ignatieff. In large part, this was because the Liberals didn’t have the money to fight back. However, by the time the election was actually called, the Tories had cast Ignatieff’s image. He never recovered.

It’s a political détente that is designed, at its heart, to discourage voters from showing up, Wesley said. Although overall voter turnout did go up slightly, it could have risen profoundly if it weren’t for the plethora of attack ads. Lower voter turnout is a big advantage to incumbents and explains part of the reason the Manitoba NDP went negative so early in this campaign cycle.

"The goal with negative ads is not to bring out more people to vote," Wesley said. "It’s a polarizing political strategy that tells people that elections are about very clear choices between right and wrong, black and white, when in fact elections are much more complex than that."

In the May federal election, this was exactly the strategy used by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative party. In the early days of that campaign, Harper hammered away at the Liberals and the idea that change now, at this delicate stage in the nation’s economic recovery, was extremely dangerous. The strategy worked wonders, driving down Liberal support. Unfortunately for Harper, it also created an opening for the NDP and the late Jack Layton, who rode the high road to official Opposition status.

However, while the more positive bent of the NDP campaign worked for Layton in Quebec, it was largely ineffective in the rest of the country, where voter turnout remained weak and the NDP failed to realize the same gains. Layton’s surge also inadvertently became Harper’s greatest asset in the dying days of the campaign. Ramping up the "fear change" strategy, Harper was able to convince Canadians that if a change to a Liberal government was dangerous, then change to an NDP government was pure suicide. It worked to perfection, giving the Tories a late push that won a majority government.

In Manitoba, the negative slugfest between the NDP and Tories would seem at first blush to be an opportunity for the Liberals and leader Jon Gerrard. However, few believe Gerrard has the personal appeal to play the Layton role in this campaign. "You need a leader that can inspire and unite voters who are disillusioned by the other parties," said Wesley. "You can use a lot of words to describe Jon — hard-working, thoughtful, diligent — but I don’t think inspiring is the first thing that comes to mind."

What then can we expect out of this election? Hours and hours of negative advertising, low voter turnout and an uncertain result that will probably tell us just as much about voters as political parties.

Get ready for the campaign of fear.

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