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Election Special: The battles of Manitoba

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/9/2011 (2179 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What must Hugh McFadyen do to become premier?

What must Greg Selinger do to stop him?


And what must Jon Gerrard do just to survive?

For McFadyen’s Progressive Conservatives and Selinger’s NDP, the Oct. 4 provincial election basically comes down to nine seats.

That’s the bare minimum McFadyen must win to form the government, albeit a very narrow majority.

"I think it’s fair to say this election is ours to lose," a McFadyen handler said, adding in the same breath, it’s also theirs to win. The official campaigns of all candidates kick off Tuesday, but most have been door-knocking for a year already.

To win, McFadyen must convince voters in Winnipeg—not just in south Winnipeg — that Selinger and his NDP have run out of gas and that it’s time for a change after 11 years in power. He must convince us that without the populist former premier Gary Doer running the show, the NDP bus is now without a driver.

That’s easier said than done.

There are conceivably about 10 seats in Winnipeg and a few beyond the Perimeter Highway — there are 57 seats in the Manitoba legislature — up for grabs this election, according to PC and NDP election strategists. The NDP have 12 seats they’re worried about, and another 12 they’ll keep an eye on as the campaign progresses.

"It will be tight," an NDP strategist said. "It’s been narrowing for the last two elections."

Working in the NDP’s favour is the relatively strong performance of Manitoba’s economy over the recession, and the widespread belief Manitobans are generally feeling pretty good about themselves with the return of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets this fall. The trick is to persuade voters not to ruin our good run, that Something Big Is Happening in the province, by electing an unproven McFadyen when another economic downturn could be on the horizon.

Then there are the perennial issues such as health care, education, crime, economy, the debt and spending and the environment. The sixth and seventh issues this campaign are Manitoba Hydro and the 2011 flood, which both carry baggage for the NDP.

"I think there are just enough issues around that McFadyen has to be heartened by this," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at St John’s College at the University of Manitoba.

"They’re within range this time. Voters are more fickle than they’ve ever been, so I don’t think voter attachments are as strong now."

Two things are working in McFadyen’s favour. First, it’s extremely tough for a government to win a fourth term in office in Canada, which is what the NDP is attempting to do this fall.

"It’s the accumulation of issues in which the government is exposed to criticism," Thomas said. "People accumulate grievances over time."

The second thing McFadyen has going for him this election, his second as his party’s leader, is four more years under his belt. More people know him. His handlers have put him on a short leash so that he sticks to the message and conveys leadership material. And there’s the fact his party’s membership and fundraising is in better shape than it was in the last election in 2007.

"I see growth in him as a leader over the time I’ve been watching him," Thomas said. "I think that’s given him encouragement."

But it’s still a steep hill for McFadyen to climb.

He could have easily gone for Selinger’s jugular when Selinger, a former academic in social work and unabashed policy wonk, won the NDP leadership two years ago. Borrowing a tactic from their federal brethren, the PCs could have defined Selinger in TV ads as the Harperites did Stéphane Dion. Instead, the PCs focused on Manitoba Hydro’s Bipole III transmission line, a critical issue for the future of the province, but one that’s tough to drive home to voters in south Winnipeg.

Instead, the NDP took the bull by the horns and defined McFadyen as a guy who doesn’t mind urine in Lake Winnipeg, will privatize Manitoba Hydro and will fire hundreds of nurses with a stroke of a pen. That forced McFadyen to come out with his own ad campaign to deny those NDP claims and label the New Democrats as playing tired and desperate politics.

Tories think they have the advantage because the NDP hasn’t cured hallway medicine and that city ERs are jammed up worse than ever with ambulances lined up outside.

Then there’s crime. This summer, arsonists burned through July and August and outlaw bikers went to war while the NDP went on summer holidays, the Tories say.

The PCs also say morale is high in the party coming off the May 2 federal election. Example? On Aug. 11 more than 200 Tories and their supporters attended Fort Garry-Riverview PC candidate Ian Rabb’s campaign kickoff featuring Streetheart’s Kenny Shields.

Obviously, there are several factors at play this election, some by design, others harder to gauge. Their influence may not be known until the dust settles Oct. 5.


Go Jets Go

The rookies gather in Penticton, B.C., on Sept. 11 and the main camp opens Sept. 17. The first pre-season game is Sept. 20 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now, let’s be honest: Will you be following the campaign with the Jets back on the ice?

Next question: Does the return of the Jets help the NDP? They sure think so. They say the return of the NHL is the exclamation point to the good health of the province’s economy, and that optimism now is way higher than it was in the mid-’90s when the team packed up for Phoenix. Proof? The sellout of 13,000 season tickets in minutes.

The NDP believes the return of the Jets strikes a chord with voters in two groups and will help them at the polls. The first group remembers what the ’90s were like and the lights of the old Winnipeg Arena going dark. They remember the construction of the MTS Centre downtown and the role government played in that. For younger voters, all they know is the Jets are coming back and one of four men seated at the head table, next to True North partners David Thomson and Mark Chipman, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, was a beaming Selinger.

Sure, Selinger butchered former Moose captain Mike Keane’s first name as "Mark," but that’s minor in the big picture. The NDP will not take credit for the team returning, but they will take credit for making economic conditions here ripe for the return.

The season opener’s proximity to election day is a stroke of good luck for the NDP, and they know it.


The flood

There’s no denying the spring and summer floods defined Selinger as a leader. He also polled well because of it, according to a survey done by Probe Research in June. The New Democrats recovered in popular support after several months of bad polling numbers, tying the PCs at 44 per cent. All has been generally quiet on the flood front lately, but expect the NDP to ramp it up again during the campaign as they promise more work to protect against high water on our rivers and lakes as the fall storms draw closer, and help flooded homeowners, farmers and cottagers on Lake Manitoba.


Federal election hangover

The Harper Conservatives won what was considered a safe Liberal seat in Winnipeg South Centre and a safe NDP seat in Elmwood-Transcona. The ousting of long-time Liberal MP Anita Neville and NDP MP Jim Maloway served notice that these two areas of the city have changed in voter loyalties, at least on the national scene.

Still, Neville’s loss to Conservative Joyce Bateman and the total collapse of the federal Liberal Party across Canada could be a sign that no Liberal is safe in south Winnipeg. That’s not good for provincial Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard in River Heights as he prepares to fight off a challenge by PC candidate Marty Morantz. Gerrard has held the seat since 1999, but given what happened to Neville, he can’t take anything for granted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s win to a majority government is also an indication the country has moved further right on the political spectrum, and that more swing voters, older voters in particular, may be more comfortable voting for a provincial Progressive Conservative candidate. Then there’s the vaunted Big Blue PC machine. It helped Bateman to beat Neville and Lawrence Toet to defeat Maloway in Elmwood-Transcona. It will be fired up again this fall to target each and every potential Tory household to get them out Oct. 4. The Tories have the most committed voters of people certain of for whom they’ll vote Oct. 4 while the overall NDP vote has softened, particularly among women.


Kevin’s machine

Kevin Lamoureux is now the MP for Winnipeg North, but he isn’t gone from provincial politics completely. While his old constituency of Inkster has been broken up due to boundary redistribution, his formidable, battle-tested organization is very much alive.

Lamoureux has been helping Liberal nominee Roldan Sevillano, who until recently was the only candidate nominated in the new constituency of Tyndall Park. About 60 per cent of the old Inkster riding is now part of Tyndall Park, while the rest is now part of The Maples. Lamoureux and his organization are trying to help the Liberals win both. And his influence can’t be underestimated — with a core group of 40 to 45 volunteers who can devote four-plus days a week to the cause and 200 who can be pressed into service in the final week or so of the campaign.

"If you have the organizational capability and the right message, the right strategy, you’re in the game," Lamoureux said recently. The Liberals, though, need to grab voters’ attention early in the campaign and quickly build momentum if they are to be a factor. In the last election, they received 12.4 per cent of the vote, winning two constituencies (Lamoureux’s Inkster seat and Gerrard in River Heights). A Probe Research poll in June showed Liberal support sunk to nine per cent. If the numbers stay there, the Liberals will do well just to win River Heights and Tyndall Park. If their support climbs to 17 to 18 per cent or beyond, then the party believes several more seats may be in play, and the steals would likely be at the expense of the governing NDP.


Redrawn map

The province’s electoral map has changed this election. The boundaries of several of the province’s 57 constituencies, redrawn to reflect population shifts, now take in neighbourhoods that polled PC in 2007. One of the critical constituencies for McFadyen is St. Norbert where Karen Velthuys is candidate.

Velthuys, one of four women running for the Tories in south Winnipeg, has knocked on every door over since being nominated almost a year ago and is now on her second round.

The NDP have held the seat since 2003, taking it from the Tories, but as of late have been involved in an internal dispute and unable to quickly field a candidate. At the last minute, the NDP acclaimed Dave Gaudreau as the new candidate, replacing NDP incumbent Marilyn Brick who isn’t running. Former PC MLA Marcel Laurendeau is the Liberal candidate.

Other NDP-held constituencies have also been renamed. Fort Garry is now Fort Garry-Riverview, and part of the old rising is now the new constituency of Fort Richmond. The constituency of Lord Roberts is also gone, eaten up by the new Fort Garry-Riverview. The NDP has owned that area of the city, but will the name changes confuse voters at the New Democrats’ expense?

University of Manitoba researchers say that’s hard to predict. They found if the 2007 provincial election was held under the new redrawn electoral map, the results wouldn’t have been much different. Any differences is outcome would be marginal, if not insignificant.


Economic voting

The thinking goes that an economy in good health will earn a government the support of the electorate. Manitoba has weathered the recession better than other provinces. Unemployment is relatively low, about two percentage points below the national rate. New home construction is up as are new car sales. Our population is growing faster than it has in the past thanks to immigration. Then there’s the return of the Jets. And what about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers? They’re on a winning tear this season and will take up residence next year in a brand new stadium at the University of Manitoba.

"The economy has been rolling along pretty well and as a former finance minister, Selinger should take some credit for that," Thomas said.

What the NDP have to do is craft a campaign that a vote for McFadyen is a vote for inexperience at a time when the economic storm clouds are gathering again.

Predictably, the PCs will counter that the economic good times were created by out-of-control government spending, consecutive deficit budgets and transfer payments from Ottawa.

Former U of M political scientist Jared Wesley, who now works for the Alberta government, said the NDP will also frame McFadyen as a clone of former PC Premier Gary Filmon, who cut public services during the recession of the 1990s and privatized the Manitoba Telephone System.

"That’s why we saw the magic sixth plank appear, that we’ll keep Manitoba Hydro provincial," Wesley said of the NDP.


Manitoba Hydro

The province’s biggest Crown corporation has gotten a lot of ink over the past four years, mostly because of the NDPs decision to build the new $3.28 billion Bipole III transmission line down the west side of the province to deliver more power to southern domestic and new export markets.

McFadyen has promised to cancel that longer route in favour of a short and less expensive one down the east side of the province without jeopardizing a bid by several First Nations to have part of that area declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

McFadyen has framed his position as one of affordability, playing to families in Winnipeg who have to pinch their pennies.

"Winnipeggers don’t really understand it," Probe Research pollster and political scientist Chris Adams said. "Winnipeggers aren’t up there. They don’t understand the different paths. He’s able to put it on the agenda for minimal environmental returns."

The Tories say that approach has found an eager audience, particularly among men. That’s forced the NDP to respond that if McFadyen wins he’ll privatize Manitoba Hydro with Manitoba Public Insurance next on the hit list. McFadyen has said this charge isn’t true.

The NDP have responded that if McFadyen gets into power, he’ll sell Manitoba Hydro, just like Filmon did MTS. McFadyen has said this is hooey.


The aura of Gord

Adams said Gord Steeve’s pedigree as a city councillor carries a lot of weight not just in Seine River where he’s the PC candidate, but in other south Winnipeg constituencies. The long-time St. Vital councillor’s civic ward not only takes in Seine River, but chunks of Southdale, Riel and St. Vital. What that means is his name on the ballot will have some carry-over effect in other constituencies, a benefit to the PC candidates running there. What Steeves has to do, however, is beat NDP incumbent Theresa Oswald, the long-time health minister.

"Those wards are quite large," Adams says. "If there’s a shake-up, Oswald might be the person to be shaken up."


Pages ripped from Doer

The PCs are running more female candidates, particularly in south Winnipeg, to counter the success of the NDP capturing that part of the city in prior elections with the team of Theresa Oswald in Seine River, Erin Selby in Southdale, Marilyn Brick in St. Norbert, Nancy Allan in St. Vital, Christine Melnick in Riel, Kerri Irvin-Ross in Fort Garry and Jennifer Howard in Fort Rouge. This election, the PCs are running Karen Velthuys in St. Norbert, Judy Eastman in Southdale and Rochelle Squires in Riel, and in west Winnipeg, Susan Auch in Assiniboia and Kelly de Groot in Kirkfield Park. McFadyen has also spent the past year unloading some of his MLAs to fashion the party more in his own image, one that is younger and more urban. Gone are older Tory stalwarts like Len Derkach. More recently McFadyen, had steered the party to the middle of the road to appeal to more urban voters. Case in point: In the dying days of the last legislative session the PCs surprised the NDP by throwing their support behind the Save Lake Winnipeg Act, one that targets agriculture for helping to create the ugly algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg.

"He needs men and women who look like urban middle-aged folks who are sensitive to middle-class issues," Adams said of McFadyen. "That includes education, health care, daycare and the environment."


Sometimes, you don’t have to dance with who brung ya

The lesson voters in Saskatchewan taught the rest of Canada is that governments can be punished for good behaviour. Despite a strong economy and good times, the government of Lorne Calvert was turfed in 2007 in favour of Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party. The NDP had been in power for 18 years and had run an effective government, seeing that province grow and flourish.

"The idea of the ‘time for a change’ was something that the Saskatchewan Party, which is sort of a renamed version of the PCs, they really did convince voters it was a time for change," Adams said, adding the Saskatchewan Party also softened its image to appeal to more voters.

"I think McFadyen is of the same ilk. I think that he’s able to convince people that he’s not some sort of throwback to the past, coming to undo all of the NDP’s activities."

Adams also said recent Probe polls on economic optimism found that while many Manitobans feel good about the province, they still wanted a change in government.


Campaigns matter

Each campaign has a defining issue that can motivate voters. In 2007, it was McFadyen promising to bring the Winnipeg Jets back if elected premier. It was an on-the-cuff remark, but it cost him what credibility he had. Those around McFadyen have him under a tighter leash now.

Where the parties will duke it out in earnest is in west and south Winnipeg, the Tories trying to recapture what they lost in the 90s and the NDP doing their best to hang on. The NDP and PCs go into the campaign neck-and neck in overall popularity.

The best predictions call for the Liberals to win two seats, but that might be a tall order without a name like Lamoureux. The closer the NDP and Tories are, the more the Liberals are squeezed out, Wesley said.

Polls before the 2007 election also said the two main parties were in a dead heat statistically, but the campaign changed that in the NDP’s favour. They won a third term with an even larger majority.

But that was when Doer was premier.

"Since Doer left the political landscape has changed, I would say significantly," Thomas said. "I say that, not out of respect for Greg Selinger as a person or a leader, just that doing retail politics was something that Gary Doer was naturally gifted at. Selling himself, selling his ideas, selling his party came naturally to Gary Doer.

"Greg Selinger is more like other academics. He’s very smart, but sometimes he’s too smart for the audience."

The NDP has had Selinger for months working overtime to shed that image, to sell him as a guy you could have a beer with, too.

What’s also helped frame him heading into the campaign is his front-and-centre positioning in fighting the spring flood, something which saw him recently come up in popularity over McFadyen.

The next six weeks will tell whether he can hang onto that, and carry the NDP into four more years.


Election results

Year Party Seats % of votes
1995 PC 31 43%
  NDP 23 33%
  Liberal 3 24%
1999 NDP 32 44.83%
  PC 24 40.58%
  Liberal 1 13.31%
  Green Party 0 0.2%
2003 NDP 35
  PC 20
  Liberal 2
  Green Party 0
2007 NDP 36 48%
  PC 19 38%
  Liberal 2 12%
  Green Party 0 1%
2011 (Probe Research Poll)    
  Voter Support
  PC   44%
  NDP   44%
  Liberal   9%


(Probe Research Poll)

Voter Support

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