Free Press political columnist Dan Lett sat down with the leaders of the three major parties just days before the election to chat about the campaign, what worked, what didn't and what's next.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2011 (3709 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Free Press political columnist Dan Lett sat down with the leaders of the three major parties just days before the election to chat about the campaign, what worked, what didn't and what's next.

A leader on the precipice

Jon Gerrard must be getting tired of hearing people wonder aloud about why he is still leading the Manitoba Liberal party.

The affable medical doctor has been at the Grit helm since 1998, and for much of that time has served as the only Liberal in the Manitoba legislature. Many observers, including some within his own party, have publicly suggested he step down as leader unless the Liberals show some sort of progress.

If Gerrard is listening to those people and asking himself some tough questions about his future, he’s not admitting it. Interviewed recently about this campaign and his future, Gerrard successfully defended multiple efforts to get him to describe the post-election conditions needed to justify his continued leadership. Rather than face questions about his future, Gerrard says he’s focused on Oct. 4 and winning not only his own River Heights seat, but several others.

"Those are questions that will naturally come at some point," Gerrard said. "But we’re not in a situation right now... to ask those questions. It’s all about October now. There will be a time to ask those questions, but that time is not now."

The Liberals have run arguably the most thoughtful, least hyperbolic campaign in this election. Their promises are realistic, new spending has been kept to a minimum and some of their solutions represent legitimate improvements over current policies and programs. Gerrard’s heavy emphasis on education and measures to increase graduation rates is particularly worthy.

It should also be noted that the Liberals are the least-negative of the major parties, a reality due in no small part to the fact they simply don’t have the money to run a fully developed attack campaign. Still, they and the Greens earn the nod as the most positive players in this campaign, and in these days of hyper-partisan, negative political advertising, that’s an accomplishment.

And this is not the first time Gerrard has earned kudos for his platforms. In 2007, for example, many pundits acknowledged that the Liberals had perhaps the most balanced, most practical platform in that campaign. Unfortunately, all that balance and practical sense has failed to earn him enough votes to elect more than two MLAs.

That is not to say that the Liberals have not had support. In both 2003 and 2007, more than 51,000 Manitobans cast ballots for the Manitoba Liberal party. In both elections, they could do no better than two seats. In contrast, the provincial Tories received 140,000 votes and 20 seats; that’s just under three times the votes for 10 times the number of seats.

Gerrard has been snookered, as many third parties are, by the first-past-the-post electoral system. With no immediate prospect for a more representative voting system that would reward the Liberals for the support they receive, it appears Gerrard and his party will remain teetering on the edge of extinction.

Gerrard will not acknowledge in any way that he is, in this election, on the defensive. In fact, facing two public opinion surveys this week that showed the Liberals with single-digit support among decided voters, he’s tried to go on the offensive. Against the poll results — which were wildly conflicting, calling into question their accuracy — Gerrard has been citing voter identification data collected by individual campaigns. These are the calls made by campaign offices asking for voting intentions. They are a decent gauge of support, but fail on one important point: they do not ensure the person answering the phone will actually show up to vote.

If the Liberals are to gain any ground in this campaign, it may come in Winnipeg’s North End where Gerrard is getting some help from the Tories. Sources indicate that in two key north Winnipeg ridings — Tyndall Park and Burrows — the Tories have all but shut down their campaign in the hope the Liberals can take both seats, currently held by the NDP. Those two seats would significantly improve the Tories’ magic number, the net gain in seats needed to win the election.

If this is the end for Gerrard, he will likely be known as the idealist who could not find a constituency. Few who know how successful he was as a physician doubt that his involvement in politics comes from a genuine interest in serving the public. It is, however, impossible to look solely at Gerrard’s idealism and divorce that from the reality of the party and what it has accomplished under his watch.

Gerrard said when he made the move to provincial politics, and pursued the leadership even before he won a seat in the Manitoba Legislature, he asked himself whether he honestly thought there was someone better who could do the job. It is a question he says he continues to ask himself, although the absence of a better candidate in and of itself is a tenuous endorsement.

If there is anything that demonstrates Gerrard’s stoic faith in politics, and his deep commitment to public service, it is that he has already said that no matter what happens on Oct. 4, and how that impacts his leadership, he will serve out his entire term as MLA for River Heights.

"I will be in River Heights representing those people no matter what happens," Gerrard says, his affable manner giving way to anger. "That is my way."

 

A leader trying to emerge from predecessor’s shadow

Consider, for a moment, what Greg Selinger has been asked to do. The NDP leader has been given the task of not only sustaining the legacy of former premier Gary Doer, but doing it by winning a historic fourth consecutive majority government in a province that has generally not embraced the concept of political dynasties. And he’s got to do this while facing a global economy teetering on the brink of disaster.

Only one party has been able to control the Manitoba legislature with a majority mandate in four consecutive elections: Rodman Roblin’s Conservative party won four majorities from 1903 to 1915. Duff Roblin’s Progressive Conservatives won four terms between 1958 and 1960, but only three were majorities. And the Liberal party held power from 1932 to 1958 with three majorities in five elections.

And it’s important to remember that as he undertakes these challenges, Selinger has not had much time to forge his leadership credentials. Doer had 11 years to hone his leadership skills before being asked to lead the province. During those opposition years, he fought to remake the party in his world view, dampening the influence of public sector unions and ultimately, when given the chance to govern, embracing certain fiscally conservative ways and means. When he left in 2009, he had created a devastatingly effective ideological hybrid that had a stranglehold on the Manitoba electorate.

That is a bloody tough act to follow. Especially when Selinger is facing the toughest economy in 20 years and fighting the closest election in more than a decade. After 1999’s stunning defeat of the Gary Filmon Tories, Doer had a relative cake walk in 2003 and 2007, with both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives putting up little resistance. And despite a small downturn in 2001 following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, Doer benefited from a robust economy that produced record revenues.

If Selinger has found any or all of this daunting, he hardly lets on. His hair is a bit whiter since he won the NDP leadership in 2009, but otherwise he insists he is the same person he was back in the 1980s when he worked outside the political system as A politically motivated academic (he taught social work) and an inner-city poverty activist.

"I believe that I still have the same core values," Selinger said of his evolution from activist to elected official.

"But one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there is never enough revenue to do everything you want to do. You have to be practical. I honestly believe that if you build something up brick by brick, sooner or later you have a house. I believe change can be accomplished on a practical basis."

Practical and oddly conservative. Although Doer was widely credited with bringing a small "c" fiscal conservatism to Manitoba NDP politics, it is impossible to exclude Selinger, who has a PhD from the London School of Economics, as a driving force behind that transformation. The budgets he delivered while finance minister in Doer’s cabinets were methodical, balancing above-inflation spending in health care and other key core programs, while showing prudence in non-core areas and finding more money for tax cuts. They were the envy of many conservative ideologues and produced little in the way of traction for his critics.

If there is any marked change in Selinger’s approach to politics, it is the negative tack his campaign has taken in this election. The Doer New Democrats rarely had to resort to all-out attack advertising, in large part because after 1999, the elections were unfair fights and the Tories and Grits put up so little resistance. This election represents a profound departure from that approach.

The NDP has gone big and nasty this election, putting Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen on the defensive. Selinger has continued to level tenuous allegations against McFadyen, including a whopper about the Tory leader possibly privatizing Manitoba Hydro if he becomes premier. McFadyen has consistently refuted the allegation, and Selinger is aware Hydro could not be sold without a provincewide referendum. Given voters overwhelming support for a publicly owned Hydro, Selinger’s attack campaign seems disingenuous at times.

This approach to politics seems so very far away from the community activist who only reluctantly ran for city council in the late 1980s, and the mayoral candidate who refused union and corporate donations and partly as a result of that, couldn’t compete with the well-funded, advertising-rich campaign of eventual winner Susan Thompson.

Selinger defends his campaign as a necessary evil to point out that the rhetoric of his opponents does not match their actions in real life.

"The test is, is the information a political party is putting out to the public true, is it accurate, is it ethical? We’ve done that."

Does Selinger regret any of the decisions he has made, or the things he’s had to do to get ahead in politics?

"No regrets," he said. "We’re all adults and when you make a decision to do something, you give it everything you’ve got and you make every day count. I know that sounds corny, but it does work."

 

A leader fighting to regain his party’s past glory

When Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen first thought about moving from the backrooms of politics to run for office, he consulted many people. But none more important than former Premier Gary Filmon.

McFadyen had been a senior staffer in Filmon’s government in the mid-1990s. While serving the premier, he had never talked with Filmon about making the jump to elected office. But when it was clear there was support for him to be a candidate, who else would be better to consult?

"It was just prior to (my candidacy for a federal nomination in Winnipeg South) that I spoke to him about running," McFadyen said. "He told me he thought it was great, and he offered me his support and advice. And he was candid.... He told me every experience you have in politics, you take away lessons about what you would and what you wouldn’t do in the future."

It’s a sage piece of advice, and perhaps it’s the key to how McFadyen, who has been dogged by the NDP about his relationship with Filmon throughout the current election campaign, can admit his connection to that administration without necessarily owning any of the policies of that time.

Oddly, McFadyen’s relationship with Filmon has become a major issue in this campaign. It has certainly been a central part of the relentless NDP attacks against McFadyen that started, really, more than a year ago.

According to the NDP, McFadyen is a throwback to the 1990s, a time when government spending was cut, hospital beds were closed and, in Manitoba, the Crown telephone utility was sold off for cash to stabilize a shaky provincial treasury. Premier Greg Selinger has accused him of not only being an architect of these events when he was a senior advisor to former Tory Premier Gary Filmon, but also a Trojan Horse for a return to Filmon-style governing.

The allegations are mostly hogwash but they are also likely effective. Despite delivering a solid campaign, it appears voters are not warming to McFadyen. Is it because of his assocaition with Filmon? Perhaps not entirely, but the NDP’s insistence on linking the two is evidence it works with some voters.

On the whole, the Tory campaign has been clever and well structured if not a wee bit expensive. McFadyen has hit all the right notes, pledging increased support to health care, education and justice programs. He balanced a pledge to hire more police officers with some solid social and recreational programming. Other than a preoccupation with Bipole III — a debate over the route of the yet-to-be-built Manitoba Hydro transmission line, an issue that barely registers with the electorate — McFadyen has authored the best Tory campaign since 1995.

However, there is a healthy dose of risk in the Tory campaign. Internally, there is unresolved concern about decisions to support Ottawa on the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, and the unexpected assertion that a Tory government would require four more years to balance the budget than the NDP currently forecast.

There must be reward from all this risk, because McFadyen must make gains in this vote. Any loss of support or seats, as was the case in 2007, could be fatal for a party that, in tough times, has shown a decided lack of delayed gratification when judging the performance of its leaders.

The good news is that McFadyen certainly looks premierial. Like all good leaders he is articulate, has instant recall on facts and figures, and is downright elegant when practicing retail politics face-to-face with voters. As such, McFadyen represents his party’s best chance at redemption.

McFadyen compared his own situation to that of former Premier Gary Doer, who was elected leader shortly before the 1988 election, in which his party lost government by losing 17 seats. However, after that initial loss, Doer went on to fight five elections — three as opposition leader and two as premier — and never failed to win more seats in each subsequent vote.

There are, at a base level, some fascinating parallels between the careers of Doer and McFadyen. McFadyen never started as low as Doer, and he may not serve as long as opposition leader, but both have faced similar challenges.

McFadyen noted that he fought his first election as Tory leader in 2007, less than a year after taking the helm of the party, much like Doer. The Tories were, at that time, still logistically challenged and financially crippled, just as the NDP were in the late 1980s. And during his time as opposition leader, McFadyen has had to wage numerous battles to get control of the policy agenda and candidate selection, battles Doer faced and won in his party.

In 2007, Doer won the largest majority in NDP history. McFadyen increased his popular vote, but still came away with one less seat. He said he’s patently aware that can’t happen this time.

Former Tory leader Stuart Murray was trounced in the 2003 election, and party dissidents rose up and struck him down before he could fight a second. McFadyen will likely face the same scrutiny if somehow he fails to show progress in this vote.

"(2007) was not the outcome we wanted... but it was what it was 12 months in," McFadyen said. "This time, we need to move forward, no question."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Dan Lett’s email newsletter, Not for Attribution