Frontlines

The crystal balls are tuned in on Manitoba

Peter Carlyle-Gordge October 22 1979
Frontlines

The crystal balls are tuned in on Manitoba

Peter Carlyle-Gordge October 22 1979

The crystal balls are tuned in on Manitoba

Frontlines

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

In Manitoba, where Sterling Lyon ousted the NDP government of Ed Schreyer in October, 1977, a political depression has settled over Progressive Conservatives. There is a definite sense of déjà vu as reports from Ottawa now talk of belt-tightening and bureaucratslashing. For its part, Manitoba has been well into austerity for some time, with Crown corporations being auctioned off to the private sector and bureaucrats and budgets alike being hacked. As one disgruntled ex-civil servant, Laura Leah Allen, put it: “Manitoba appears to be in the avantgarde of the back-to-medieval-times movement.”

The Lyon theory was that once socialist legacies were swept away by efficient Tory brooms, boom times would follow. So far they haven’t, and gloomy reports on the province’s future have been falling thick as autumn leaves. Young professionals have been packing bags and racing lemming-like to pastures greener—last year alone the province lost 10,000 people and was the only one in Canada to record a net population decline.

Socialists, especially, are watching for some sign that Lyon’s policies might be provoking the public too far. Ever since Ed Schreyer quit the party to become Governor-General last December, the NDP has limped along with interim leader Howard Pawley, a respected lawyer whose political talents are widely thought to fall short of Lyontaming. Many NDPers were critical of Schreyer, suspecting him of having fallen asleep at the wheel in his last few years as leader, but now most readily admit that he is sorely missed.

Lyon’s public support will get a partial testing this week, when the results of three byelections are known. The seats being contested Tuesday are: Fort Rouge, formerly held with a 667-vote margin by lone Liberal MLA Lloyd Axworthy, who became an MP in May; affluent River Heights, previously held by former Conservative cabinet minister Sidney Spivak, who unsuccessfully sought a federal seat in May; and Rossmere, formerly held by Schreyer.

Trying to fill Schreyer’s shoes in Rossmere is Vic Schroeder, a former party president of the NDP, who is favored to retain the Schreyer margin of 730 votes. Says one senior PC member

with access to polls: “We used to say Schreyer held it because of personal popularity but in May [the federal election] the tide ran like hell for the NDP there. I think it’s safe for them.” Four others are seeking the seat, including Marxist-Leninist Manuel Gitterman and Linda Penner of the Western Democracy Party. Schroeder, a 35-yearold lawyer, says the main issue will be the government’s track record, its broken promises and mishandling of the economy. His Conservative opponent will be management consultant and city Councillor Harold Piercy, 45.

In Fort Rouge, the Liberals, crowing over a fourfold increase in party membership since 1977, are fielding city Councillor June Westbury, who might become a candidate to head the leaderless Liberal party if she wins the seat, as she’s expected to. Westbury says Manitoba politics have become too polarized between the ideological screechings of left and right. The time is right, she thinks, for the rebirth of the provincial Liberals. Trying to prove her wrong will be Hugh McDonald, 49, a Conservative lawyer, and Vic Savino, a 32-yearold lawyer representing the NDP.

Perhaps the most interesting seat in terms of gauging government popularity will be affluent River Heights, a well-heeled, traditionally Conservative suburb which, in 1977, returned Spivak with a 4,513-seat majority. One party poll of the riding undertaken in late August and early September by Opinometrics, a private research firm, showed 69 per cent of River Heights voters were

concerned with out-migration from the province. As Winnipeg Tribune political writer Frances Russell noted in a column recently: “Middleand upper-income voters aren’t affected by reductions in social services. But they are distressed by seeing their children have to leave Manitoba to get employment. Middleand upper-income voters are likely to applaud government spending restraints. But they are alarmed when they see forests df FOR SALE signs in their neighborhoods . . . they don’t like economic uncertainty and stagnation.”

Hoping they’ll dislike it enough to elect him is Liberal lawyer Jay Prober, 36, another party leadership hopeful, who admits winning won’t be easy, but adds that a significant slip in the Conservative majority will gladden many Liberal hearts. “It does get to people,” he says, “when they walk down the street and see all those FOR SALE signs. Something is wrong.” Hoping to retain River Heights for the Conservatives is Gary Filmon, 37, a city councillor and president of a local business training school, who claims he has heard no major complaints: “I’ve visited three-fifths of the voters and find most discussion is on federal not provincial issues,” he says. “It’s true there’s concern over people leaving the province, but this riding has always had a large turnover of executives being transferred. People aren’t afraid it’s an epidemic. Some Conservatives may vote Liberal but they wouldn’t if it were a general election. They know their vote this time won’t change the government.”

Meanwhile, the Promised Land foreseen by Lyon seems as far away as ever and even his own supporters have shown consternation at protracted restraint, which is fine in theory, but not so good when it hurts. Freezes on government spending and contracts have hit builders, architects and many small businessmen.

A partial reckoning may have come in the last federal election when Manitoba bucked national trends and the Conservatives actually lost seats. Some Conservatives admitted it might be a voter backlash and restraint may have gone too far too fast. But despite the doom and gloom on economic and employment issues, there is one ray of light on the Manitoba horizon—emanating from a public corporation. Manitoba Hydro sales to the U.S. helped produce a $45-million profit this year and prospects of further massive power sales are rosy. With such profitability in mind, Lyon—as well as Prime Minister Joe Clark, sharpening his own knives in Ottawa—may be taught a lesson in this week’s voting. lt;£gt;