November 13, 2019

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Party leaders balance perils, pros of skipping public forums

When Sharon Carstairs led the Manitoba Liberals into the 1988 election, she was the definition of an underdog. Her party held a single seat entering the race (hers), so she had a lot of legwork to do.

"It was imperative I attend every public event I could," Carstairs, who retired from politics in 2011 after 17 years in the Senate, told the Free Press. "But you have to pick and choose."

So she raced from parade to meeting to town hall, sending a representative in her stead when she had to be two places in once.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Manitoba Libera Leader Dougald Lamont has sent party representatives in his place when he has to be in two places at once.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Libera Leader Dougald Lamont has sent party representatives in his place when he has to be in two places at once.

That's what Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont — who was due in Norway House — did for a Tuesday night forum in Winnipeg on poverty and hunger, sending Wolseley candidate Shandi Strong. For the same event, the Progressive Conservative party didn't send anyone.

Major Public Forums

While there is no comprehensive list of every public forum in the lead-up to the 2019 Manitoba election, here is a sampling of forums of note which have occurred, or are coming up, in Winnipeg:

While there is no comprehensive list of every public forum in the lead-up to the 2019 Manitoba election, here is a sampling of forums of note which have occurred, or are coming up, in Winnipeg:

Aug. 15

I'm First Nations and I Vote (AMC)

Represented by: Wab Kinew (NDP), James Beddome (G), Dougald Lamont (L), Eileen Clarke (PC)

Aug. 20

MPHM Hunger and Poverty

Represented by: Kinew, Beddome, Shandi Strong (L)

Child Care Forum

Represented by: Karen Myshkowsky (NDP), Tony Hill (G), John Cacayuran (L), Scott Fielding (PC)

Aug. 21

UpForDebateMB (women’s rights, gender equality)

Confirmed: Bernadette Smith (NDP), Andrea Shalay (G), Cyndy Friesen (L)

Aug. 27

Disabilities Matters Vote

Fair Vote Manitoba

Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters

Aug. 29

Manitoba Health Coalition

Sept. 6

Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce: Leaders Debate

The PC's absence struck the event's organizers, Make Poverty History Manitoba, as disheartening, but according to at least one political scientist, it shouldn't come as a surprise for a party to skip on issue-specific public forums.

"We've seen a strategy for governments or leading parties to not participate because there's a risk associated," said Lisa Young, a professor at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy who specializes in party politics. "For some parties, certain issues are winners, so they want to be there. They know they're likely to win votes because of where they stand.

"Under those circumstances, it's a no-brainer," she said. "You might even send your leader" — an option both the Greens and NDP exercised Tuesday in showcasing James Beddome and Wab Kinew, respectively.

But if a topic of discussion doesn't play to a party's strengths, it's not unusual for the leader's seat to stay empty or to be occupied by a place-holder. "There's lots to be lost," said Young. "Particularly, if a party is running on its record."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>PC leader Brian Pallister's absence from a hunger and poverty public forum struck the event's organizers, Make Poverty History Manitoba, as disheartening.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

PC leader Brian Pallister's absence from a hunger and poverty public forum struck the event's organizers, Make Poverty History Manitoba, as disheartening.

Explaining his absence Tuesday night, Brian Pallister told reporters Wednesday the "debate was organized by people antagonistic to the PC government, so we'll leave that there."

Pallister has also opted out of an Aug. 29 health-care debate.

When asked why no representative was sent Tuesday, a PC spokesperson said: "It's well-known Make Poverty History has close ties to the NDP."

Michael Barkman, chairman of MPHM, said the organization has worked with and criticized every political party, and reached out several times since July to the PC leadership to solicit their representation at the town hall, which was attended by 150 people at Knox United Church.

"With a lot of candidates and machinery of the campaign, certainly one person could have attended," he said.

No candidate for premier can be everywhere: to run for office is to run around, said Carstairs, who led the Liberals to Opposition status in 1988, with 20 seats.

KELLY MALONE / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>While Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, Lamont, and Beddome have each ceded their platform to other party candidates at least once in what's still a young campaign, the PCs are the only ones to miss a major public forum entirely.</p>

KELLY MALONE / THE CANADIAN PRESS

While Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, Lamont, and Beddome have each ceded their platform to other party candidates at least once in what's still a young campaign, the PCs are the only ones to miss a major public forum entirely.

And while Kinew, Lamont, and Beddome have each ceded their platform to other party candidates at least once in what's still a young campaign, the PCs are the only ones to miss a major public forum entirely.

"For parties with reason to believe they're doing well, or if they're in the lead, they might have something to lose by attending, whereas those struggling have little to lose but much to gain," Young said.

A pre-election poll by Probe Research (commissioned by the Free Press) in June showed the PCs held 42 per cent of support, with the NDP at 25, the Liberals at 16, and the Greens at 14.

Research analyst Adelina Petit-Vouriot, who works for the national non-partisan Samara Centre for Democracy, said despite political parties shifting to include strategies such as targeted online campaigning, the public forum still represents a powerful opportunity to engage in democracy and influence electoral outcomes.

"Missing a forum shouldn't necessarily mean a party isn't worthy of a vote, but we're concerned about the ability of the electorate to get truthful information on a party's stance," she said. "Ultimately, it's up to voters to decide whether they penalize that party at the ballot box."

Carstairs was less forgiving. "It's totally unacceptable for parties to not have a representative on an issue that impacts so many Manitobans," she said.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @benjwaldman

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 at 8:06 PM CDT: Updates poll numbers.

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