December 10, 2019

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Out of the darkness, Manitoba Liberals seek sunny days

Opinion

Perhaps it was a sign on the day Dougald Lamont officially launched the 2019 Manitoba Liberal election campaign, the sun was exceedingly bright.

About 50 candidates and supporters had gathered behind Lamont for a news conference at idyllic Elzéar Goulet Park in St. Boniface, the riding Lamont wrested from the NDP in a byelection one year ago. It was a modest gathering, absent of the loud music or confetti cannons or throngs of chanting supporters that often accompany this kind of political event.

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, speaks at a press conference at Parc Elzear Goulet in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, speaks at a press conference at Parc Elzear Goulet in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Instead, Lamont offered a more sober, workmanlike posture.

A former political aide and speechwriter, Lamont meandered through a somewhat academic description of the Liberal party campaign. He emphasized the importance of environmental policy, and highlighted a pledge to help provide resources so every single Manitoban could plant five new trees. He promised to provide a real alternative to the Progressive Conservatives and NDP.

Lamont tried to generate some enthusiasm, but his understated style and the sheer lack of bodies behind him made that difficult. Even so, as he shielded his eyes from a blistering mid-afternoon sun, he looked and sounded like a man comfortable with his position in the election starting grid.

The real problem for Lamont is things always look bright for the Grits at the start of provincial campaigns. In those first few days, it seems as if anything is possible and Liberals see nothing but clear skies ahead.

In the past, however, dark clouds start to appear at the halfway point, when its evident the party has neither the policies nor the organizational capacity to compete. By election day, it's a full-on canvass of black skies and gloomy prospects. At least, that's been the case for the Grits for the past 30 years.

Lamont doesn't dodge questions about the chronic underperformance by the Liberals. Asked what is different this time around, Lamont said he firmly believes the political gods have given him a favorable matchup.

"One of the secrets of success in politics is being lucky in your choice of opponents," he said with a grin.

In Lamont's estimation, the NDP is still a "fractured" party, and the Tories have polarized voters with "a very aggressive austerity program" and Premier Brian Pallister's combative personal style. It is into this dynamic Lamont hopes to lead the Liberals to some measure of glory.

In many ways, the only way forward for the Liberals is to go up.

Since 1988, when then-leader Sharon Carstairs stunned the province by winning 20 seats with more than 190,000 votes — a respectable 35 per cent of the popular vote — it has been steadily downhill.

Grit vote totals declined to 138,000 (1990), 119,000 (1995), and 66,000 in the 1999 election. Since then, the Liberals have never garnered more than 62,000 votes and dropped to an all-time low of 32,400 in 2011.

There have been many issues: weak or inexperienced leadership, a shortage of campaign funds, and a shortage of quality candidates. Lamont said he has tried to address all of these.

The Grits are also trying to be better at voter identification; elections are won or lost on a party's ability to identify definite or possible voters and get them out to the polls.

Lamont said the Liberals are using state-of-the-art software, which allows candidates to use their smartphones to map out each street in their constituencies. The information gathered helps the candidates concentrate canvassing on households that may support them and bypass ones attached to other parties.

Lamont also claimed the party has "six figures" in its campaign war chest. That is still a relatively modest amount but, if true, would dwarf the funds previous Liberal leaders raised.

There is some evidence the Liberals do have more money to work with this time around: in the pre-writ period, the party ran a series of television advertisements during supper-hour news programs. Television advertising is among the most potent forms of campaign marketing, but it is also the most expensive.

Lamont said the Liberals will be able to compete on a more level playing field with the two other major parties — which is essential if he is to maintain any sense of momentum. His byelection victory gave the Liberals four seats in the Manitoba legislature and official party status. That, in turn, triggered an increase in caucus staff and resources.

That is not to say all of the Liberal ducks have lined up. Lamont promised to nominate a candidate in all 57 ridings but, as of Tuesday, the party has only 42, with less than two weeks to go before the deadline.

Lamont is looking at a door of opportunity that is cracked open, if only slightly. The only question is whether he can walk through or stumble on the stoop like his predecessors.

He is, as is his way, intensely philosophical about the whole thing.

"There are the things that are possible and things that are likely," Lamont said. "The whole point of campaigns is to turn the possible into the likely."

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

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 at 6:20 AM CDT: Corrects typo

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