Canada

Herding the Prairie voter

Brian Bergman August 30 1999
Canada

Herding the Prairie voter

Brian Bergman August 30 1999

Herding the Prairie voter

Canada

Brian Bergman

Temperatures soared in much of the Prairies last week, sending grateful residents out in shirtsleeves and tank tops to soak up what remained of Canada’s most fleeting season. The political barometer was also rising, as the nations two longest-serving current premiers, Manitoba’s Gary Filmon and Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow, chose the lazy final days of summer to put their respective electoral lives on the line. Both men had postponed election calls in the spring in the face of labour strife and public discontent—and each now has reason to believe that the political winds are blowing more in his favour. But there are still plenty of storm clouds on the horizon.

When Gary Filmon stepped into the political limelight in the mid-1980s as leader of the provinces Progressive Conservative party, the public response was underwhelming. Filmon struck many observers as stiff, indecisive—and found himself derided in the press once as “a five-star nerd.” But there was none of that public awkwardness on display last l week when Filmon set Sept. 21 as the provincial election date. While no one would ever accuse the Manitoba premier of trading on charisma, he now handles the chores of campaigning—wading into a coffee klatch at a seniors’ residence or posing for the obligatory photoops—with casual aplomb. “Fm certainly more relaxed than I have been in other campaigns,” Filmon told Maclean’s during a break in the glad-handing. “Campaigning is fun. If you don’t enjoy it then this is the wrong business to be in.”

Just how much longer Filmon remains in the business of politics is now up to Manitoba voters. The most recent public opinion polls suggest that the premier—who is seeking a rare fourth term—is in a neck and neck batde with his longtime adversary, NDP Leader

Gary Doer, with the province’s embattled Liberal party trailing in third place. “Filmon has been in power for 11 years,” observes William Neville, head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba. “There is some sentiment out there that it is time for a change.”

When Filmon backed away from a spring election in April, he cited his concern over outstanding contract disputes with the Manitoba Nurses Union and other provincial health-care workers (the contracts have since been settled). But most analysts agreed that Filmons more immediate priority was to put some distance between himself and the vote-rigging scandal that led to

an inquiry under retired Manitoba chief justice Alfred Monnin. In his findings on March 29, Monnin confirmed that several senior Conservatives, including the premier’s own chief of staff, had conspired to recruit and fund independent native candidates in the 1995 provincial election in an attempt to bleed off votes from the NDP. The same Tories later engaged in a coverup of their actions. But Monnin accepted Filmons assertion that he had no prior knowledge of the plot or the coverup.

Delaying the election proved advantageous in another way. The 1999 PanAmerican Games, held in Winnipeg from July 2 to Aug. 8, was an uplifting, even euphoric experience for many

Manitobans—and Filmon was front and centre during much of that time. A Conservative party TV ad which began airing across Manitoba last week makes a none-too-subtle stab at capitalizing on the good vibes. It shows a casually dressed Filmon sitting in cavernous Winnipeg Stadium, where much of the Pan-Am action took place. “The stands are empty, but the spirit remains,” says the premier, who goes on to suggest that his party is in the best position to build on the positive legacy of the Games.

Doer concedes that Filmon has enjoyed “a bump” from the Pan-Am Games, but insists that it is temporary. As the campaign progresses, he says, voters will focus on the NDP agenda, with its promises to restore health-care funding and cut property taxes while continuing the Tory record of balancing the budget. It is crucial, he adds, for the NDP to appeal to traditional supporters of the Liberal party, which has changed leaders twice since the last election and now holds only two seats in the Manitoba legislature, compared with 31 for the Tories and 23 for the NDP Says Doer: “Liberals like what we have to say on education and health care, but want to know we’ll be fiscally responsible.”

Neville believes the NDP has a real shot at power. But he cautions that Filmon—who is making tax cuts a key campaign theme—has made a career of being underestimated. “Filmon is a great deal tougher than people give him credit for,” says the political scientist, “and much more ruthless than his public persona would suggest.”

In a political career spanning more than 30 years, Roy Romanow has never been known as a risk-taker. So Saskatchewan’s NDP premier was naturally appalled when the province’s 8,400member nurses’ union embarked on an illegal strike just days before he intended to call an election this spring. The premier immediately ordered the nurses back to work—a decree they defied, with considerable public support, for 11 days. With no quick setdement in sight, Romanow opted to wait. While June elections had been particularly kind to

the NDP over the years, he did not want a repeat of 1982, when similar labour problems helped sweep Allan Blakeney’s NDP government from power. In that election, Romanow, who had been Blakeney’s attorney general for nearly a decade, lost his own Saskatoon seat to a 23-year-old real estate agent.

A fall election also gave Romanow time to deal with another political headache. During the summer, he has been increasingly strident in demanding that Ottawa provide more support for Saskatchewan farmers, now facing their most dire income crisis since the

A cloudburst of September elections for Manitoba and Saskatchewan

Depression. As he announced a Sept. 16 election date, Romanow portrayed himself as the logical champion of the farmers’ cause. “I’m asking to be armed with a mandate to go to Ottawa to make the case for our farm families,” he told cheering supporters in Saskatoon.

Romanow, who is seeking a third term as premier, enters the campaign with many obvious advantages. The NDP currently holds 41 seats in the Saskatchewan legislature, compared with 10 for the Saskatchewan Party and five for the Liberals. Neither opposition leader has ever been elected to provincial office. The Saskatchewan Party, considered the main competition to the NDP, was cobbled together two years ago after the unseemly demise of the once-powerful provincial Tories. The latter closed shop in the wake of criminal corruption charges against more than 15 MLAs and party workers who served under former premier Grant Devine. Although the Saskatchewan

Party also includes some former Liberal MLAs and federal Reform supporters, Romanow insists on referring to it as the “Sask-A-Tory” party—a pointed attempt to draw links to a tainted past.

For all of that, some political observers believe that Saskatchewan Party Leader Elwin Hermanson, a farmer and ex-Reform MP, could turn the election into a horse race. University of Saskatchewan political scientist John Courtney says three key issues dog the government. Public unease over health care and high provincial taxes are two of them. But most important, says

Courtney, the rural vote could coalesce behind the Saskatchewan Party as a way to bring attention to the farm crisis: “If that happens, and the Liberal vote collapses, this could be quite a close race.” Romanow acknowledges that possibility. “There’s always a chance in any election that people can take out their frustrations and fears on the governing party,” he told Macleans. “But I think farmers have to ask themselves: what are the alternatives?” If re-elected, Romanow vows to bear down on Ottawa with “the best arguments, the strongest political case I can mount, and bring all the years of experience I can bring to this thing.” Will that experience trade on his longtime political friendship with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, forged during the 1981 patriation batde when they were both key constitutional lieutenants? “As Jean always says, ‘Friends are friends and business is business,’ ” notes Romanow. And elections are the most serious business of all. ES]