“What the Manitoba election did,” said the NDP political aide, “was to clear the air. Politics are polarized in this province; the choice is clear. You’re going to see the same thing happen right across the country.” He leaned back with the air of a man who has just delivered the revealed truth, and glowered across the dinner table, challenging contradiction with a glare. It would have taken more courage than I have to reply, “Fiddlesticks, sir. Nonsense, moonshine and poppycock.” But that’s what it was. Despite the high pedigree of this myth — both Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer and Liberal leader Izzy Asper subscribe to it; Asper used it to explain the poor showing of his party, Schreyer to excuse himself for not generating a landslide — it is just that, a myth. The way it worked out in the Manitoba election carries a lesson for all of Canada.
When the NDP government, riding a razor-slim edge in the legislature (29 seats out of 57), called an election for June 28, a block of opposition members decided that the time had come for a knockdown, drag-out fight on the issue of Socialism vs. Free Enterprise, or, as Asper’s signs put it, SELF-CONTROL NOT STATE CONTROL. A body called the Group for Good Government sprang to the alert in the free enterprise trenches, conducting polls to determine which candidate, Conservative or Liberal, would have the best chance of defeating the socialist rascals in key ridings.
Then the GGG issued a list of 18 approved candidates of both old parties who had been checked for capitalist purity and certified by the computer as likely to win. In addition, in nine other ridings the Liberals and Tories made deals to field a single candidate.
The line was drawn, but the NDP refused to step across. On its record, the NDP looked like any mildly reform - minded administration. It had installed a government-run auto insurance scheme, established pharmacare for pensioners, and promised to continue extending welfare programs and reforming the tax structure. On the other hand, it had shied away from direct intervention in the economy and treated the only truly radical proposal put before it like a snake in a ladies’ washroom. Government adviser Eric Kierans (a Liberal) had argued in a report on natural resource policy that the Crown should “repatriate” all resources now in private hands. Schreyer reeled back from the suggestion as “too drastic” and called a press conference to tell the province’s quaking mining magnates that they had “nothing to fear.” He didn’t sound like much of a socialist.
To add to the confusion, Sidney Spivak, the Tory leader, was on record as approving much of the NDP program, including state-run insurance, although he quarreled with its implementation. Spivak’s own party was split, with many rural members regarding him as dangerously left-wing.
Izzy Asper tried to clarify things with a right-wing Liberal ticket, promising to clear up the “welfare mess,” turn the province into a tax haven and restore free enterprise to its rightful place in the temple of government.
Once the campaign opened, the NDP eschewed policy discussion and ran Schreyer as Prince Charming, the friend of farmer, workingman and business magnate. There was no real campaign issue until near the end, when Schreyer warned that his government would “not bend over backward ... to treat fairly and equally a constituency the MLA of which is vicious and malicious” toward the NDP. That blew the old Prince Charming image right there, and did the government far more harm than the anti-socialist crusade.
When the dust settled after the election, the NDP had gained four percentage points in the vote over 1969 (from 38% to 42%) but only three or four more seats than at dissolution (at this writing, Izzy Asper’s seat has still to be settled by a court ruling, so the NDP has either 31 or
32 seats), while losing two cabinet ministers. The Tories picked up one seat (from 20 to 21) and one percentage point (from 36 to 37). The Liberals either held their five seats or dropped one, depending on how the courts rule, and lost five points of the vote (from 24% to 19% ).
The coalition campaign was a flop; of 11 NDP-held seats where the GGG issued an endorsement, the government held 10, and of nine seats where only one anti-government candidate was run, the NDP held eight.
The NDP had no clear mandate to move further left, but a fair indication that it should continue to jostle for position in the middle of the road, with the Tories. The Liberals had been warned that extremism in defense of free enterprise is not a virtue.
The lessons were lost on the politicians. The NDP now apparently feels the way is clear for a one-to-one battle with the Tories, but if such a tussle comes, it will be a war of party labels, not political philosophies. The Liberals believe they barely escaped what Asper called “a stampede either to the right or the left.” And the myth of polarization is extending itself; out in British Columbia, a group called the Majority Movement is girding its loins to attack the socialist hordes next time around.
This notion that we are on the verge of fixing our political position forever with one climactic vote is the real Canadian dream. Early in the last federal election, Prime Minister Trudeau said that campaign would settle “all the piddling questions” with one resounding Yes or No. It didn’t, of course; Canadian voters seldom hand out Yeses or Nos; usually they issue a conditional Maybe. All of which shows how much smarter they are than the politicians.
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