Tories rise again An inside look at how Brian Pallister and his party delivered their historic victory
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/04/2016 (2473 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As the riding-by-riding results started to flow Tuesday evening into the ballroom of the Canad Inn Polo Park – site of the Progressive Conservatives’ election-night headquarters – there were two kinds of reactions.
There were the jubilant supporters who were cheering every television report of a Tory candidate’s lead. And there were those who wandered around the room in a daze.
It was 1995 when Tories last gathered to celebrate a Manitoba election win. Since then, four consecutive NDP majorities, and four consecutive nights of bitter, stinging defeat for the PCs. It had been so long since they won an election, many Tories admitted they simply forgot what it was like to have the results go their way. “I left my daughter’s 24th birthday party to come here,” said one supporter. “I just couldn’t miss this. She was only four the last time we won.”
And it was not just any win on April 19. It was a thunderous body slam of a result that left the NDP a shadow of its former self after nearly 17 years in government. The Tory majority, the largest in more than six decades, was so definitive, so massive, it seemed almost out of character for a province that does not reward its elected officials with mandates of this kind.
History will show the PCs were never really threatened in this election, leading wire-to-wire thanks largely to the fact the other two major parties failed miserably to provide voters with much of an alternative. Virtually unopposed, and running the best campaign in the party’s history from a strategy and logistical point of view, the Tories cruised to victory.
And yet, it would be hard to convince any of the Tories working on the campaign it was an easy election, or the result was never in doubt. That’s the reality for any party that had gone so long without tasting victory.
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The rookie veteran
Brian Pallister was doing a horrible job containing a giddy, nervous smile as he entered an abandoned jewelry store on Marion Street – the campaign office for his PC candidate in the Saint Boniface riding – on this, the biggest morning of his political life.
It was March 16, the first day of the 41st provincial election campaign. Pallister shouldn’t have been too nervous; he had been through six elections as a candidate before. However, this one would be unlike any other for Pallister.
Veteran politician. Rookie leader.
One of the undeniable precepts of politics is that being a candidate for public office does little to prepare someone for leading a party into an election. Political history in this country is littered with tales of promising careers destroyed by the inability to endure the burden of leadership. Simply put, being able to get elected does not necessarily mean you have the mettle to lead others into an election.
Pallister, despite having led his party to nearly unassailable levels of popularity in pre-election polls, still entered this campaign as a wild card. A wild card with a pretty extensive political toolbox at his disposal.
Pallister is a polished, experienced politician who can deliver a solid stump speech and is good working a room. However, he is also a notorious lone wolf who does not seek nor accept much in the way of advice from those around him.
Pallister frequently talks about his accomplishments in sports as a metaphor for his leadership style. The example cited most often is his time playing basketball for the Brandon University Bobcats. However, people who have known him his entire life say it wasn’t basketball, but fastball that defined Pallister. "You know, he was a pitcher," said a long-time political ally. "And that’s who he is. The single guy standing out there on the mound, doing his own thing and living and dying by his own performance."
He can also be a loose cannon who has a penchant for saying odd and inflammatory things. Combined, these qualities made the electorate somewhat ambivalent about his potential to be premier.
According to pre-writ polls, Pallister’s personal popularity lagged significantly behind his party. This factor weighed heavily on the minds of long-time Manitoba Tories, who had suffered through every one of the 16 years the party spent in opposition and were deeply concerned about nailing down an election win that seemed to be theirs for the taking. This was a party that had changed leaders often in the previous 16 years and was quick to judge and condemn if things weren’t going their way.
“I know a lot of people who want Brian to succeed,” said one long-time Manitoba Tory. “But a lot of people in the party also know that if anyone can f–k this up, it’s Brian.”
Was Pallister aware there were skeptics among the rank and file, including the elected caucus? In what was easily the most important decision made about his stategy, Pallister brought in a heavyweight to help him run the campaign and mend his relationships with his MLAs.
You can tell a lot about a political leader by the number of smart people he surrounds himself with, and David McLaughlin’s resumé reveals there are few conservatives smarter: former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, former chief of staff to New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and former chief of staff to Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty; senior mandarin in the federal Finance Department. He understands politics and finance and — party insiders hoped — would be a strong enough voice to provide some balance to Pallister’s occasionally unilateral leadership style.
Since taking over the leadership, there had been friction between Pallister and his caucus. Sources confirmed the leader was unimpressed with the work ethic of many of his MLAs. The MLAs, in turn, resented the amount of time Pallister spent at his Costa Rica vacation property — and the way he imposed policy with little or nor consultation with caucus.
Working closely with McLaughlin, the Tories settled on classic front-runner strategy: ration Pallister’s time in public, keep pledges vague and realistic and let the other parties wear themselves out.
Although Pallister did make daily campaign stops for announcements and media scrums, he turned down more than half of all the forum and debate invitations he received. Although he frequently claimed he was leading the most ambitious campaign ever undertaken by a leader in a Manitoba election, it was clear his advisors wanted to minimize the opportunities for missteps.
So it was on that first morning of the campaign, Tory strategists decided to hammer away at the central plank in their campaign: a pledge to roll the Provincial Sales Tax back to seven per cent.
It was a no-brainer. Even though polls showed voters, particularly those in Winnipeg, were modestly supportive of the tax hike, Premier Greg Selinger’s decision in 2014 to increase the PST to eight per cent to fund infrastructure was his Achilles heel. Selinger did it even though he had repeatedly promised not to, and did it without holding a referendum required by law. It also laid the groundwork for the divisive NDP infighting that forced him to fight for his own job.
Pallister was extremely effective when he was reminding voters that Selinger “lied” about tax hikes once, and he would likely lie about doing it again in the future.
The problem for Pallister is his PST pledge, which would cost the provincial treasury nearly $300 million annually, is an onramp to an awkward discussion of Tory fiscal policy that includes a promise to slow the overall rate of spending increases by one per cent. He would not say with any certainty how much of an impact that plan would have on core services, such as education and health care. He would only say that it will not “impact front-line services.”
On the campaign’s opening morning, when asked if his plan to slow the rate of spending increases would include all departments, including health care, Pallister lit the fuse on the aforementioned loose cannon. “There are no sacred cows here,” he said.
That comment landed with a deafening thud in the Tory war room located in a strip mall on Scurfield Boulevard in the far southwest of the city. Although Pallister was only trying to say he would look for savings and efficiencies in every department, he had broken the cardinal rule of election front-runners: Never give your opponents bulletin-board material.
The NDP wasted no time in including the “sacred cow” comment in every announcement, pointing to it as a clear sign Pallister would eviscerate core services to pay for his tax cut and to balance the budget. This culminated in a news conference on March 21, where Selinger drove home the point that a vote for Pallister was a vote for cuts to health and education funding.
“The NDP will build,” a news release trumpeted. “Brian Pallister will cut.”
The Tory response to Pallister’s gaffe was, remarkably, to do nothing.
No official rebuttal to the NDP allegations, no attempt to clarify the statement. Pallister did answer questions on the matter at his daily media availability, but he could not illuminate or explain his one per cent solution and how it would impact core programs. Media inquiries asking for some details to estimate the impact of the one per cent solution on health care went unanswered.
In the nearly 17 years they have spent in opposition, Tories have always believed attempts to portray them as fiscal hawks that would slash spending on core services are deeply and deliberately dishonest. “It’s nothing but a hatchet job,” said one senior Tory insider. “Real shenanigans. And the media just eats it up. You guys print whatever the NDP says even though you know it’s untrue.”
— Today’s NDP (@mbndp) March 23, 2016
Perhaps, but like former Tory leaders Stuart Murray and Hugh McFadyen, Pallister has demonstrated passive resistance in the face of this highly effective NDP strategy. And Pallister’s claim that he cannot define the impact of the policy without a full audit of government spending came across as weak and unconvincing on the campaign trail.
More importantly, because so much of government spending is devoted to departments that would deliver “core services,” it is difficult to hold the line on an overall budget spending increase without some impact on health, education and family services.
Pallister finished off the first week of the campaign with a hastily arranged tour of western and northern ridings, which took him well away from the heat of media scrutiny that was now focused almost solely on Winnipeg. It appeared more and more likely Pallister was content to try to lay back and merely survive the election as the front-runner.
Video: Defining campaign moment — reporter Kristin Annable
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Fear the bogeyman
Wherever Greg Selinger went, so went the bogeyman.
Imagine an older, white man in a blue business suit with a penchant for cutting taxes and a secret agenda for eviscerating health care, education and social services. Now, imagine the man in the blue suit looks just like Brian Pallister.
Meet the bogeyman.
As the second week of the 41st general election unfolded, Selinger and the bogeyman were making daily — sometimes twice-daily — appearances.
Every NDP announcement was built around a warning about the damage a Tory government would do. Every Tory pledge was greeted by a NDP news release pointing out Pallister had been a minister in the Filmon government, and that during the lean 1990s, he had been at the cabinet table when funding to health and education was essentially frozen.
Gallery: On the campaign trail with Brian Pallister
“(Pallister’s) cuts will put a lot more pressure on school divisions and force them to fire teachers and school staff,” a NDP media statement trumpeted in the second week of the campaign. “He’s done it before and he’ll do it again. The Conservatives cut or froze Manitoba’s education budget every year they had the chance, leading to $50 million in cuts to the education system and 700 teachers being fired.”
NDP candidate James Allum put it more succinctly in a news release. “If you’re a public sector worker, if you’re a nurse, a doctor, a teacher, a child-care worker, you’re going to lose your job.” It seemed unimportant to New Democrats that these claims were empirically unsupportable, at best. At worst, they were part of a dishonest narrative that the NDP continued spinning out because, frankly, it worked.
The origin of the Tory bogeyman is easy to identify. However, it’s continued value as an effective campaign strategy was proving harder to justify.
The archetype, of course, was Gary Filmon. Premier from 1988 to 1999, Filmon’s administration was characterized by a constitutional crisis, a recession and then a period of severe austerity prompted by a national obsession with balancing provincial and federal budgets. A decision by the federal Liberal government to massively cut health and education transfers triggered severe austerity at the provincial level, forever defining premiers such as Filmon as fiscal hawks.
Filmon has since become demonized by NDP culture, portrayed as a heartless number cruncher who sold off Crown assets, lopped off the heads of nurses and teachers, cut government services and otherwise sought to reduce the footprint of government in Manitoba.
Stuart Murray – a Red Tory by any objective measurement – inherited the role of bogeyman when he took over from Filmon after the Tories’ defeat in the 1999 election. Hugh McFadyen then took on the mantle for the 2007 and 2011 elections, where the NDP effectively positioned him as the man most likely to sell Manitoba Hydro to highest bidder.
The NDP were so successful in convincing voters McFadyen was going to sell Hydro, he was forced in the 2011 election to hold a news conference at which he signed his name to a huge, novelty-sized pledge NOT to sell Hydro. It was a humbling, humiliating exercise that did nothing to defuse the lingering concern that, as a Filmon disciple, he was going to govern like it was 1995.
The bogeyman has been such an important part of the NDP narrative for so long, it works its way into almost everything New Democrats do and say.
Preventing Pallister and the Tories from “ruining” Manitoba was a prime motivation for the five dissident cabinet ministers who tried unsuccessfully to force Selinger to step down in 2014. Leadership rival Theresa Oswald would frequently cite it as her driving motivation for running against Selinger. It was also one of the principal reasons why Selinger clung so desperately to power. If he were to leave, many of his supporters theorized, wouldn’t that pave the way for a Pallister government?
And yet, even before the halfway point in the election campaign, there were signs the bogeyman strategy was wearing thin. As the NDP continued to hammer away at the inherent risks of a PC government, polling data showed pretty clearly it was not having the desired result.
In 2011, the Tories started the campaign as the consensus front-runner, albeit their lead over the NDP was much smaller than it was this time around. Ultimately, the NDP would win the election and expand their majority by one seat at the expense of the Liberals. However, the result was more of a mathematical anomaly than anything else.
The NDP actually saw its share of the popular vote fall in 2011 to 46 per cent; the Tories, meanwhile, boosted their share to nearly 44 per cent but failed to win an additional seat. Given the fact NDP burned the Tory bogeyman in effigy on a daily basis in that campaign, it might have been a sign the strategy was wearing thin.
Certainly, early evidence in the 2016 campaign suggested the bogeyman wasn’t nearly as potent as he had been in the past.
In large part, that had to do with whatever baggage Pallister was carrying from his association with the Filmon government, it paled to the baggage Selinger was carrying in this election.
Selinger and the NDP had gone into the campaign fairly confident they could convince voters to forgive them for raising the PST in 2013 to fund infrastructure, after promising in 2011 never to introduce such a measure. Election polls would show a slight majority of Manitobans, and a strong majority of Winnipeggers, supported the tax hike as long as the money went to infrastructure.
And to the NDP’s credit, hundreds of millions of additional dollars had gone into infrastructure all over the province. The NDP campaign was built around the idea that when compared with Selinger’s flip-flop on the issue, voters would still see the value in what he had done.
What the NDP could not mitigate was the damage done by the civil war that ravaged the NDP ranks.
The leadership crisis started in late 2014, when five ministers broke from cabinet and caucus confidentiality and openly called for Selinger to step down. The five would resign from cabinet and one of them – Theresa Oswald – would challenge Selinger for his job. Ultimately, the premier prevailed in a convention showdown but not without providing the Tories with a rich trove of material to use against the governing party.
The best campaign advertisement the Tories unleashed during the campaign was a slightly edited version of an ad premiered in the pre-writ period. It relied solely on the video of news conference featuring the Gang of Five cabinet ministers accusing Selinger of ignoring the interests of Manitobans to indulge his own self-interests. “If even the NDP can’t trust Greg Selinger, how can Manitobans?”
In this election, the bogeyman would provide no help in mitigating the damage done by that episode in Selinger’s political career, and the NDP knew it. As the Tory ad went into heavy rotation during the second week of the campaign, a senior NDP strategist lamented: “It’s their best campaign ad by a mile, and we wrote it for them.”
With Pallister playing hide and seek, and Selinger and Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari still feeling out their strategies, the parties started to receive internal polling numbers that suggested a wide range of scenarios.
An early Liberal poll – pretty much the only one they could afford – suggested a collapse in NDP support, a mild increase in Liberal support and enormous support going to the Tories. The NDP and Tories – both with the resources to rely on nightly polling to produce rolling averages – showed all three parties holding pretty firm at pre-election numbers: Tories in the mid 40s, and the Liberals and NDP in the low 20s.
However, all three parties could agree on one thing: Pallister and the Tories continued to maintain a significant lead, even if there was no consensus on the size of that lead.
That left open the question of whether the NDP or the Liberals could galvanize enough anti-Tory vote to challenge Pallister. Although there was always a chance both parties could arrive at election day in a mathematical tie, which would have likely put both in the low 20s of decided support, most pundits believed one of the two parties would ultimately collapse, leaving the other party to make a run at the front-runner.
In the NDP war room on Portage Avenue, the reality of a seemingly insurmountable Tory lead was taking hold. The top minds in the campaign had adopted a new overarching mantra: “The Tories may be our enemies,” a senior NDP campaign strategist said. “But the Liberals are our competition.”
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On the ropes
Rana Bokhari’s trouble started on a frosty Monday morning at a news conference held at her Osborne Street campaign office.
The first two weeks of the campaign had gone decently for the rookie politician. Bokhari didn’t score many points, but neither did she seem to do anything to hurt her chances. Polls showed the Liberals well back of the front-running Progressive Conservatives, but still neck and neck with the NDP. Liberals all over the province dared to dream of a breakthrough.
On this morning, March 28, the rookie Liberal leader summoned reporters to hear how her party would pay for its election promises. That is, for any leader, a critical moment in the narrative of any election.
The event started well enough. Bokhari was as bubbly as usual, and her office was packed with more than a dozen candidates. As is her fashion, Bokhari essentially hugged her way around the room, reaching for and embracing anyone within reach. Then, staff circulated a series of documents designed to explain the costs of her pledges, along with a fiscal forecast.
Bokhari repeatedly promised she would protect services and balance the budget. The problem, though, was her supporting documents showed only increasing deficits. And the forecasts left out some big pledges, such as rolling back the payroll tax, a measure that brings in $400 million annually.
However, when pressed to explain how that would happen, she flailed about, unable to string together more than a few words before starting a new sentence that would also be left unfinished. The reporters grew more and more frustrated, and the questions became more and more cranky. Eventually, staff brought the event to an abrupt end.
It was almost as if the tenuous hold Bokhari had on her party and campaign came undone. However, this was just the beginning of what Liberals would come to know as the Week from Hell.
Two days later, voters learned Elections Manitoba had rejected five Liberal candidates, four because of technical errors on their nomination papers, one because the candidate filled out her nomination papers while still serving as an enumerator.
That wasn’t all. Having already lost a good portion of her team, Bokhari was forced to stick with her candidate in Brandon West after he pledged to close two Winnipeg hospitals. The following week, Bokhari was forced to drop a candidate in Elmwood who, it was found, had a history of domestic abuse.
As the campaign came undone, Bokhari became less patient with reporters.
“This isn’t rocket science,” Bokhari told the Free Press about the loss of candidates. “You don’t seem to understand this, and I don’t know how to make you understand this. If you need to do some personal research, I suggest you do it. End of story.”
By the midway point of the campaign, Bokhari had gone from “promising” and “surprising” to “not ready for prime time.” Early concerns the Liberals suffered from a shortage of financial and human resources seemed to be coming to fruition. Certainly the failure to do proper candidate-vetting was a clear sign the party did not have the machinery to compete.
Bokhari’s growing frustration was no doubt a reflection of the fact she could feel a tremendous opportunity slipping through her fingers. But it was also because there were many Liberals in the province who had been waiting for her to stumble and fall.
Bokhari, a lawyer, won the leadership in October 2013 with the support of just 431 party members, a modest and sobering number that reflected there was, at that time, virtually no interest in the Manitoba Grits. Over the previous 16 years, the Liberals had never had more than two MLAs in any one session. In 2011, the party got the support of only seven per cent of voters.
The reality was Bokhari had inherited a party on life support. One would think the new leader – a young woman of colour with a professional background – would put a charge in moribund Manitoba Liberals. Instead, her leadership victory unleashed a wave of contempt and hostility.
Shortly after the convention, Bokhari discovered a small but influential cadre of loyalists, who had worked with former leader Jon Gerrard, was trying to deny her the leadership. Party insiders confirmed in the weeks following the leadership convention, various members of the party board openly conspired to find a procedural loophole that could justify ousting the new leader. "They were literally going to try and lock her out of the party headquarters," one veteran Liberal noted.
VIDEO: DEFINING CAMPAIGN MOMENT — REPORTER NICK MARTIN
According to insiders, Bokhari obtained an email chain identifying the conspirators on the party’s board. It was at that moment, the insiders say, she decided she would do what she could to confront dissidents and either win their support, or ask them to move on.
In early 2014, the results of Bokhari’s efforts were evident. In February, leadership rival Bob Axworthy was removed from the party’s board on a technicality. Axworthy said he and a number of other board members or veteran volunteers were asked to either “leave or resign” their memberships. Bokhari denied the allegation, but party president Gerard Allard and George Baars-Wilhelm did, in fact, resign from the board.
Political leaders frequently have to trigger a changing of the guard — getting rid of obstructionists and dissidents and bringing in people who are more supportive of the new regime. And it appears Bokhari did do that, which is her prerogative. But given that there were so few people lining up to help the Manitoba Liberals, it was also a move that left her somewhat isolated and working with a small inner circle that had little front-line political experience.
Bokhari had hired former Tory communications specialist Mike Brown, and he had been instrumental in the flood of populist policy announcements in the pre-writ period that had helped put the Manitoba Liberals back on the political map. However, Bokhari did not seem to seek, nor was she offered, much in the way of help from experienced Liberal politicians or organizers.
In what was perhaps the best example of this, party sources confirmed Bokhari has never spent much time with former Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, an icon in the party for her 1988 electoral breakthrough. This alone is significant given that the conditions seemed so similar: the descent of a long-serving but unpopular NDP government; a PC party that was struggling to get momentum because of an ambivalence about its leader.
The big difference between 1988 and 2016 is Carstairs ran a tight, nearly flawless campaign and was rewarded with 20 seats. It was hard to see the current edition of the Manitoba Liberals making gains like that.
It would have been easy to write off Bokhari’s Liberals after her stumbles at the midway point in the campaign. But then again, Bokhari had an ace up her sleeve.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Going into the campaign, it was impossible to ignore the Manitoba Liberal Party was getting a bump in interest and support from its association with the new federal Liberal government.
Gallery: On the campaign trail with Rana Bokhari
So it was hardly surprising that there, in the window of the campaign office for commuters to see on their daily trek to and from downtown, was an enormous poster-sized photo of Bokhari arm-in-arm with Trudeau. It was a perfect metaphor given that the rising fortunes of the provincial Liberal party could be tracked back directly to the rise in prospects of the federal party.
The most obvious proof came March 22, when the Trudeau government tabled its first budget. Although it failed to meet all of the Liberal campaign pledges, and the deficit was three times what was forecast during the election, Bokhari could not have been more supportive.
In her budget-day comments, Bokhari uttered the term “aligned” more than a dozen times. She said the federal and provincial Liberals were “very aligned,” that they share the same values. Budget measures supporting innovation, technology and family-tax benefits were “very much aligned with our values.”
This was no flyer on Bokhari’s part. Both the Tory and NDP overnight polling numbers on federal budget day showed a bump in support for the Bokhari Liberals.
“We’re still planning on seeing the Liberal support collapse,” said one senior NDP campaign source. “But it’s certainly been stubborn up to this point.”
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Heat of the battle
Welcome to the ‘lesser of three evils’ election.
With less than two weeks to go before election day, distinct storylines had galvanized in the three main party campaigns, all connected by a single, overarching reality. The election would be fought — and won — without providing the electorate with a compelling ballot box issue or leader around which voters could establish a strong relationship.
Pre-election polls continued to show about one in five voters was still undecided. Although it was a bitter campaign at times, it had failed to establish any emotional connection with voters. And when it came to leadership, voters were intensely ambivalent about their options. Not surprising, since neither the NDP nor Liberals were able to put a dent in the Tory campaign, which appeared to be poised for a relentless, wire-to-wire victory.
The Liberals had hoped at one time to slow down the Tories, much the way Carstairs did in the 1988 election. While Carstairs found momentum to force a minority on the Gary Filmon-led Tories, in this election the Liberals stood by and watched a slow, steady decline in support for Rana Bokhari. Too little election machinery, too many mistakes. It all combined to forge an anvil of dashed expectations that would hang around Bokhari’s neck to the end of the campaign.
That is not to say that there were not some Liberals still hoping for a breakthrough. Even with Liberal support headed to the single-digits, NDP and Tory strategists would not write them off in certain ridings where individual candidates were succeeding and where the central office was failing.
For example, going into the final week of the campaign, the Tories and NDP were confident the Liberals would win in Burrows, where Cindy Lamoureux hoped to capitalize on the ubiquitous, odds-defying political mystique that has defined the remarkable career of her father, Kevin Lamoureux, a former MLA for the area who now serves as a Liberal MP.
Kevin Lamoureux has a history winning both federal and provincial elections in spite of the withered brand of his party. He was able to do this with relentless constituency work to build an unparalleled network of support across the northwest quadrant of Winnipeg. His reach into the Filipino and Indo communities is profound, so much so that when he went to his supporters to get his daughter elected, they responded in such force that internal polling in NDP and Tory war rooms had Burrows checked off for the Liberals early in the campaign.
Much like River Heights, where former Liberal leader Jon Gerrard seemed unbeatable, there was no mechanism that could transfer some of that electoral experience or energy from Burrows to the central campaign. With her father’s political machine at her disposal, the Burrows campaign made it politely clear to the Grit war room that she neither needed, nor wanted, any help from Bokhari.
That scenario provided both comfort and concern for the NDP and Tory campaigns. It meant there was not going to be any sort of red Liberal wave crashing over the province. But it also meant the Liberals had a shot at winning multiple seats without running a good province-wide campaign. At the very least, it made the Grits an unpredictable presence in several key ridings.
That was of greatest concern to the NDP, which was relying more heavily on estranged Liberal voters to hold many of its seats in Winnipeg. For the Tories, it was a merely an inconvenience when it came to resource deployment. By the end of the first week in April, the Tory campaign was becoming more confident that no matter what Leader Brian Pallister said or did, he was unlikely to derail the momentum his party had established in the run-up to election day.
That was quite a revelation to many Tories who worried openly voters were, in general, not all that fond of Pallister.
In poll after poll during the campaign, it was pointed out Pallister’s personal popularity lagged well behind that of his party. Tory internal polling was more flattering, but in most independent polls, Pallister was the top choice to lead the province but with the support of only about one-third of respondents. That was nearly identical to the 32 per cent of respondents in a Probe Research poll that refused to identify someone.
There was a theory in Tory circles that this disparity – clearly evident in pre-writ polls – would be mitigated once Pallister got out on the campaign trail and was showcased for voters on a daily basis. That didn’t happen. In fact, there is evidence to suggest Pallister only succeeded in re-enforcing the idea that while he was the top choice to lead the province, voters only saw him the best of a bad lot of political leaders.
His flagging personal popularity was even more remarkable given the Tories easily ran the best of all the three major campaigns.
The central PC campaign managed to keep all of its 57 candidates on message and out of trouble, an enormous undertaking in the age of social media that once again speaks to the brilliance of Pallister’s decision to bring in veteran Tory David McLaughlin to run his campaign.
McLaughlin’s influence cannot be understated. Pallister had inherited a party and caucus that were deeply skeptical about its leaders. So much so that over their years in opposition Tory MLAs had evolved into “warring duchies,” as one Tory insider put it. “They were all doing their own thing, raising money on the side and refusing to pony up to the central campaign. They didn’t want anything from central, and offered nothing in return.”
The problem with this structure is it offers no hope of forging a standardized message or consistent ground game, particularly when it comes to getting the voters out during advance polls and on election day. In 2011, the NDP won a majority despite receiving only two points more than the Tories in popular vote. The victory was a direct result of the NDP doing a better job of getting its supporters to the polls.
This time, insiders said McLaughlin helped the party organize a standardized approach to strategy well in advance of the official campaign. On Pallister’s urging, he instituted a “buddy system” that paired veteran MLAs with rookie candidates to instruct them on things such as canvassing, fundraising and recruiting volunteers. The incumbents were also given firm targets for the amount of money they had to raise to support the central campaign.
“There was a real, sincere disappointment from the 2011 election,” said one senior Tory. “They felt like something had been stolen from them. Everyone had this definite feeling that they didn’t want any more results like that. They said, ‘Let’s not mess this up again.’ ”
VIDEO: DEFINING CAMPAIGN MOMENT — REPORTER LARRY KUSCH
Notwithstanding the commitment to never suffer a result like 2011 again, Pallister did have a few rough moments. He continued to struggle at times to defend himself against allegations he had a hidden agenda to gut core services such as health care and education. He got into an odd altercation with an environmental protester who claimed Pallister, in a fit of anger, snatched his cellphone.
At one critical moment in Week 3 of the campaign, Pallister pledged a Tory government would cap infrastructure spending at $1 billion annually. It was a fiscally prudent move, particularly since he had promised to roll the PST back to seven per cent. However, by limiting infrastructure spending, he was also admitting he was going to spend much less than the NDP over the next four years. That was risky for Pallister; infrastructure was the No. 1 issue for voters, and a focal point of the NDP campaign.
And then there was Costa Rica. Voters learned in the final week of the campaign that, since 2012, Pallister had spent more than 240 days at a vacation property he owns in Costa Rica. It was an extraordinary amount of time that raised concerns he was not fulfilling all his obligations as leader of the official Opposition.
The revelations were further complicated when he was forced to admit he misled reporters in 2014 when he claimed that he was unable to visit the scene of severe summer flooding in the province — much of it in the area where he has strong personal roots — because he was at a family wedding. In fact, he was in Costa Rica.
When the Costa Rica allegations first hit, there was a dip in Tory support. However, within days, the story’s impact was negligible.
Fortunately for Pallister, the glue that held the PC campaign together and mitigated the impact of his occasional missteps and poor judgment was the presence of Selinger.
It did not take long during the campaign for all the NDP candidates – both returning MLAs and rookies – to realize voters in their ridings were obsessed with a dislike of Selinger. From long-shot ridings that were definitely going to go Tory to NDP strongholds in the core of the city, candidates reported early on voters were angry with Selinger and they could not be placated.
This had been telegraphed before the election when it was reported NDP MLA Dave Gaudreau had melted down at a pre-writ caucus meeting. Having heavily canvassed his St. Norbert riding several times, Gaudreau told the caucus meeting that voters hated Selinger and that he was threatening to bring them all down in this election.
That was the experience of many NDP candidates. “They are universal against Greg,” said one veteran NDP candidate. “And they are emotional about it. When voters get emotional at the door about something, you know no matter what you say, you’re not going to flip them.”
The harsh reality was the NDP campaign simply had no response to the overwhelming negativity directed at Selinger. When pressed directly, Selinger would tell supporters he was hearing concern from voters about a lack of party unity; he continued through to the end of the campaign to dispute the notion that he, and not unity, was the real issue. “Neither Greg nor Jeremy (Read, the campaign manager) would acknowledge what was actually happening on the street,” said a senior NDP official.
Gallery: On the campaign trail with Greg Selinger
As a result of this mindset, the NDP central campaign refused to downplay Selinger’s role in the campaign – he continued to be a central figure in ads and made most of the announcements – or provide candidates with talking points that could help mitigate the sheer disdain with the premier. In response, NDP insiders said a number of candidates took it upon themselves to instruct canvassers to remind voters that if the election unfolded the way it appeared it was unfolding – a relentless march to a Tory majority – then Selinger would be gone from the leadership in a matter of weeks.
This strategy did not come easily to many NDP organizers. But many felt, in the absence of some sort of central strategy or talking points, they had no choice. “We still don’t know what the ballot box question is,” said one senior campaign strategist. “The Tories have ‘Greg Selinger is a liar.’ We’ve tried to tell people that ‘Brian Pallister will cut services’ but that’s not scaring anyone. What is our central message?”
That was not the only challenge facing the NDP in the latter stages of the campaign. In particular, the NDP were struggling to figure out which ridings to hold firm, and where to abandon campaigns and transfer resources to other ridings.
Tory internal polls showed the NDP was weakening in a number of Winnipeg seats that had long been considered unwinnable for other parties. Word spread quickly about mass canvasses organized for long-standing NDP strongholds such as Kildonan, St. Johns, Burrows, Elmwood, Concordia, and Transcona. The deployment of a wave of canvassing volunteers for a one-night blitz is typically used in one of two scenarios: ridings a party thinks it can steal; ridings the party holds now but is afraid of losing.
The awful fact of the matter for New Democrats was that late in the campaign, the potential losses were enormous and the possible steals non-existent. Compounding matters was the NDP central campaign was operating somewhat blind going in the last two weeks.
By the end of the first week in April, NDP campaign officials confirmed they had stopped doing overnight polls that would have given them a sense of the ebb and flow in certain key ridings. No explanation was available for this decision, but the sheer cost of the polling is thought to be at least part of the equation.
The NDP was unable to raise all the money it needed to spend up to the limit in this campaign. Even so, party insiders said an early decision was made to dip into a line of credit and spend “whatever was necessary” to battle the Liberals and Tories. Even so, some insiders said there was a growing sense by the midway point that there were just too many ridings in jeopardy to pay for polling in all of them.
The result was by the last week, the NDP war room had made no significant move to identify the ridings it felt it had the best chance of retaining, and those that would be stripped of resources as lost causes. “People really wanted someone to say to them, ‘Look, let’s shut down a couple of campaigns and move some of the more experienced people into the ridings we think we can win,’” said one senior New Democrat. “They were afraid to send out that message or make those decisions. It was absurd.”
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Battered, bruised and on life support for most of the 41st general election campaign, truth finally succumbed to its injuries just 48 hours before Manitobans were to go to the polls.
The campaign had become increasingly bitter, with polls showing the Tories still way out in front and time running out on the NDP’s string of majority governments. But the final weekend of the campaign, it was clear the NDP was going to lose many seats that had previously been considered impenetrable. A senior NDP strategist admitted that by the final weekend, the best-case scenario was 16 seats. Even with defeat unavoidable, the NDP did not go gentle into that good night.
On April 16, the last Saturday of the campaign, the NDP issued a news release asking whether the Tories were poised to cut funding for cancer treatment, including drug therapy as part of its overall plan to slow the rate of growth in government spending. “Families deserve a straight answer from Brian Pallister on whether their cancer care services are at risk before they cast their vote,” NDP Leader Greg Selinger said in a news release.
Like so much of the NDP’s bogeyman campaign against the Tories and Pallister, the allegation was really more of an extrapolation: Pallister has said he will slow funding and find “efficiencies” within government spending to balance the budget; less spending might impact health care; cancer treatment is a high-profile service offered within the health department.
Unfortunately, the NDP’s strategy only served to make its increasingly bad situation worse.
VIDEO: DEFINING CAMPAIGN MOMENT — REPORTER BARTLEY KIVES
Pallister’s personal numbers, and that of the party, surged upwards as the public reacted to the desperate, inflammatory NDP allegations. At the NDP war room on Portage Avenue, there was a realization that, as one NDP insider put it, “We had jumped the shark after that last one.”
The stark reality of the situation convinced the NDP to basically hold fire Monday, the eve of the campaign. There had been talk of having a NDP official appear before a judge on Monday to swear out an affidavit accusing Pallister of breaching his duty to disclose assets to the legislature because he had not listed two holding companies he owns in Costa Rica. If it were true, Pallister could be fined or have his seat vacated.
At the last moment, cooler heads, triggered in part by the awful reality of what was going to happen on election day, prevailed. A reality that hit home that final weekend.
On the same Sunday, Pallister surprised the New Democrats when he flew to northern Manitoba. The Tory leader visited The Pas and Garden Hill First Nation, the latter located in the vast Keewatinook riding, which includes Churchill.
A last-minute foray into northern Manitoba was the last thing the NDP wanted to see. The north has consistently been a New Democrat stronghold and with the prospect of getting wiped out in seat-rich Winnipeg, the NDP had neither the resources nor the time to shore up northern support.
The reaction in the NDP war room was predictable, if not a bit disturbing. “A few of us soiled our pants when we heard that.”
The magnitude of the Tory majority government that was to be won on Tuesday night was just now coming into focus for the NDP. Even without overnight polling numbers, the central campaign had written off a number of ridings that hardly anyone in the NDP campaign could imagine losing. These included Southdale, Radisson, Transcona and Kildonan. Concerns were heightened in a series of other ridings, including Tyndall Park (where the Liberals were strong), The Maples, St. Johns, and Elmwood.
The negatives for the NDP campaign were just too numerous, and too powerful, for Greg Selinger and his team to overcome. Bad outcomes in core service areas, a string of deficit budgets, the unfortunate handling of the PST increase, and the bitter civil war that forced him to fight for his job in a leadership convention, were really too much for any politician or party to survive. Add to that the hyper-negative push at the end of the campaign — a strategy that backfired spectacularly — and you have a no-win situation.
Both the Liberals and NDP would finish with the knowledge had they run better campaigns there were opportunities to slow the Tory juggernaut. Not many, but there were some.
Pallister, along with campaign director David McLaughlin, ran a masterful campaign that avoided scandal or controversy and stayed on message. Following an extended period where the Tory MLAs felt estranged from their headstrong leader, Pallister and McLaughlin worked tirelessly to engage veteran MLAs and convince them to throw the full weight of their experience and resources into the central campaign. “Brian was convinced that they could not campaign the way the party had in the past,” said one senior advisor. “It just wasn’t going to work if everyone was out doing their own thing and not pulling together. He was going to break the cycle where our people were only concerned about winning their own seats.”
Pallister returns to the farm
In classic front-runner style, the Tories offered little in the way of detail about how they would accomplish their goals of “less taxes, better services” as Pallister would repeatedly say. The NDP howled about the lack of detail, accusing the Tories of having a secret austerity agenda, but voters seemed willing to give Pallister the benefit of the doubt.
It was Pallister’s stand on infrastructure funding that revealed just how bullet-proof his campaign had become. Pallister admitted he would spend less than the NDP on the most important top-of-mind issue and it hadn’t made any significant impact on his lead. The electorate’s appetite for change, and weariness with Selinger’s NDP, had trumped all other concerns.
It was clear with the results on election day this stand did not hurt Pallister. If nothing else, it was pretty compelling evidence New Democrats needed Selinger to step down in 2014 when he was confronted by dissidents. Only a new leader, and a rebranding of the party, could have saved them. That was a tough lesson learned by incumbents such as Dave Chomiak (Kildonan), Eric Robinson (Kewatinook) and — perhaps the biggest stunner of all — Steve Ashton (Thompson) who all lost seats no one in the NDP thought could be lost.
If there was any comfort for the NDP in the final election results, it is that many longtime NDP supporters did not switch their allegiances. Instead, they just didn’t show up.
The final numbers show the PCs won a historic majority government, with one of the largest shares of total votes cast (53.4 per cent) in an election where total turnout went up slightly.
However, the slight increase in voter turnout was almost entirely due to a huge surge in spoiled ballots. A whopping 4,016 voters deliberately spoiled their ballots, 10 times more than in 2011. Rejected ballots were also considerably higher this time, 2,462 compared to 1,600 in 2011. These numbers suggest while many Manitobans wanted to get rid of the NDP, there were many as well who simply could not find another party to vote for.
In seats the NDP retained, incumbents including Selinger won but with much smaller vote totals and pluralities. In Fort Rouge, one of the most hotly contested ridings with both NDP star candidate Wab Kinew and Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari in the mix, total voter turnout was down nearly 14 per cent. Kinew eventually won with 2,275 votes, far less than the 4,501 votes former NDP MLA Jennifer Howard pulled in the 2011 election.
Pallister now takes over a government heading into uncertain times. He will not benefit from a significant uptick in the economy, as was the case when then-NDP premier Gary Doer won in 1999. He will have a gargantuan task ahead managing his enormous caucus, and building a cabinet that will be smaller and thus stretched thinner.
However, regardless of party, those MLAs heading to the Manitoba legislature will learn soon enough one of the most undeniable realities of politics, something that explains why politicians often go to such ridiculous lengths to win an election.
Doer frequently tells a story about an exchange he had with former Tory deputy leader and MLA Jim Downey, with whom the NDP premier had many battles over the years. When Doer was still in opposition, Downey offered him a piece of advice that more or less explains the reality of life in provincial politics.
“The worst day in government,” Doer recalls Downey as saying, “is better than the best day in opposition.”
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.
Updated on Thursday, April 21, 2016 9:10 PM CDT: Corrects typo.