It was hardly what you would call a shocker. And yet, Bill Blaikie's departure from politics is pretty intriguing given the scenarios it opens up.

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This article was published 11/7/2011 (3675 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It was hardly what you would call a shocker. And yet, Bill Blaikie's departure from politics is pretty intriguing given the scenarios it opens up.

The former MP turned MLA will have come and gone from the NDP caucus and cabinet without having fought a provincial election. That is somewhat of a surprise, given that when Blaikie left federal politics in 2008 and essentially swapped seats with former NDP MLA Jim Maloway, few within the party thought he would not stay for the next election.

NDP sources confirm Blaikie had been talking of leaving politics for some months, unsure whether he had the energy to face another general election. Some NDP insiders suggested Blaikie may have found the dream of being in government -- he sat in opposition in the federal House of Commons for 29 years -- simply did not match up to the reality.

Whatever the motivation, a retirement like this, at a moment like this, is never a positive development for a political party. Running neck-and-neck with the Tories, the NDP faces its first real electoral test in more than a decade. On the eve of that battle, anytime a senior elected official decides to hang up his or her spurs, it creates an impression they are fleeing a sinking ship. Although it is unlikely that was Blaikie's motivation, it is hard to control public perceptions. Along with Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk, who announced her retirement last week, the NDP is suddenly scrambling to fill holes.

Is the NDP concerned about Blaikie's Elmwood riding? Outwardly, no. One senior political strategist suggested the only way the NDP can lose Elmwood is if there is a total collapse in support. And that does not seem to be in the cards.

All that having been said, the Tories are licking their chops over Blaikie's departure. The northeast and east end of Winnipeg has produced some very Tory-friendly results at the municipal and federal level. Tory-backed council candidate Thomas Steen captured Elmwood-East Kildonan in last fall's civic election. And in May, Tory Lawrence Toet won a stunning victory over Maloway in Elmwood-Transcona.

Although party affiliation is not a potent factor in municipal elections, the Toet victory was significant in that it represented a rare steal of a seat that had been solidly NDP for more than three decades. However, the riding is changing and growing Tory support in the northern part of the riding -- the so-called New Transcona -- has no connection to the organized labour-loving, working-class voters who stuck with Blaikie all those years.

If there is lurking danger for the NDP in Elmwood, it is in the form of disaffected, former New Democrats who are crossing party lines and offering help to the opposition. The most famous example of this was Coun. Russ Wyatt's decision to abandon his old friends in the NDP to offer Toet help in the last federal election. It is always difficult to calculate the impact of any one person's influence in a campaign, but many Tories believe Wyatt may have been the difference in Toet's win.

The back story on Wyatt's decision was particularly juicy. Before offering Toet his support, Wyatt asked Premier Greg Selinger to create an opening for him to run in the next provincial election by dumping incumbent NDP MLA Darryl Reid. And he asked for a cabinet seat. Not surprisingly, Selinger turned him down. Wyatt called Toet.

Sources confirmed Wyatt has already made his interest in the Elmwood Tory nomination known through intermediaries. To date, the Tories have not bitten on the offer but that is not to say they won't. If Wyatt proved anything in the federal election, it was that he can bring votes wherever he goes. For a party that needs every seat it can get to defeat the NDP, it may be an offer the Tories cannot refuse.

And Wyatt is not the only former New Democrat to find a home with the Tories. Kaur Sidhu, the Tory candidate in Rossmere, is well-known in NDP circles and was a senior adviser in NDP cabinet minister Steve Ashton's failed leadership bid.

Blaikie's departure is not the most shocking development to hit Manitoba politics. However, the departure of a storied political figure from one of the safest NDP seats in the province will give the Tories some hope in that riding. And in an election that will probably be decided by a handful of seats, today's miniscule advantage could turn out to be tomorrow's deciding factor.

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.

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