Manitoba’s test of wills

MARCUS GEE March 17 1986

Manitoba’s test of wills

MARCUS GEE March 17 1986

Manitoba’s test of wills


Two years ago the political standing of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party government was critically low. An undertaking by Premier Howard Pawley to guarantee French language rights in the provincial constitution and expand services to francophones led to massive public protests, forcing him to backtrack. The controversy left the government trailing the Progressive Conservative opposition by more than 30 percentage points in opinion polls. But an upturn in Manitoba’s economy and a skilful campaign to refurbish the NDP’s public image created a resurgence in the polls. As a result, Pawley called an election for March 18.

Last week, as the five-week election campaign entered its final days, most political commentators predicted that Pawley, 51, will defeat his Conservative opponent, Gary Filmon, and win a second term as premier. According to a University of Manitoba poll conducted between Jan. 25 and Feb. 3—before the Feb. 11 election call—44.5 per cent of decided voters favored the NDP, 39.5

per cent the Conservatives and 14.1 per cent the Liberals. A second survey conducted by the CBC and released last week showed the NDP leading with 48 per cent, compared with 43 per cent for the Tories.

Still, both sides—and most neutral observers—expected the final results to be close.

Despite a curiously lowkey performance by Filmon, a 43-year-old Winnipeg engineer who is waging his first campaign as Conservative leader, Tory strategists claim that they are gaining on the NDP. Said campaign consultant John Laschinger, a former national director of the federal Conservative party: “I don’t share my polls with anyone, including my wife. All I can tell you is that we are headed in the right way and the NDP are headed in the wrong way, and they know it.” Meanwhile, the Tories were counting on a solid performance by Filmon in a

key weekend television debate with Pawley to increase their strength.

Pawley’s aides talked privately last week of a breakthrough that could give the NDP up to 40 seats in the 57-member legislature. The current standings: NDP 32, Conservatives 22, independents two, with one vacancy. The premier himself was in a buoyant mood last Friday when he met with reporters after the release of a favorable poll. But he insisted, he was not “overly cocky.” Said Pawley: “In my view this election is still neck and neck.” Pawley’s caution seemed to be wellfounded. The outcome of Manitoba elections is notoriously difficult to predict. The reason: the key to victory lies in a group of about a dozen swing ridings often decided by only a few hundred votes. In the November, 1981, election, which brought the NDP back to power after a four-year Tory interregnum,

14 ridings were decided by fewer than

1.000 votes. In fact, as many provincial Conservatives note, if they had taken a total of just 1,500 more votes in six key seats, they would have beaten the NDP—and formed the government. But New Democrats say that they also lost four seats by narrow margins. Generally, the Tory strength lies in the rural communities of the province’s southern agricultural belt, while the NDP holds the northern native and resource-based districts and the cities.

So far the campaign has been uneventful, with few contentious issues. In a successful attempt to avoid controversy but capture media attention, Pawley has bombarded the province’s

708.000 voters with pledges. Among them: a 10-year, $100-million cleanup of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers; $4.3 billion in new hydroelectric power exports to the United States; and equal pay for work of equal value in the private sector. Pawley has also stressed his government’s economic record— Manitoba’s gross domestic product grew by 4.5 per cent in 1985 and unemployment last month was 7.9 per cent, one of the lowest rates in Canada—and criticized the federal government for cutting transfer payments to the provinces. The NDP slogan: “Stand up for Manitoba.”

In the early days of the campaign Filmon ridiculed the premier as “promise-a-day Pawley.” But the Conservative leader has since made several pledges of his own, including elimination of a 1.5-per-cent tax on company payrolls and $130 million in new and expanded health and social programs. At the same time, Filmon says that he would reduce the provincial deficit of $500 million, upgrade the troubled health care system and improve the climate for small business. And he has made it clear that a Filmon government would not resort to the unpopular austerity measures that helped to defeat Tory Premier Sterling Lyon in 1981. Said Laschinger: “If we allowed the NDP to say that we would steal milk from babies, then we were going to be in trouble.”

In fact, Filmon’s program has attracted less attention than his unorthodox campaign tactics. In an election almost devoid of controversy, the Tory strategy became one of the few things left to discuss. The nub of the debate: Filmon’s decision to wait until a Sunday afternoon two weeks into the campaign to release his first policy statement, and then wait another week to release his economic program. Meanwhile, Pawley was making announcements almost every day —usually timed to make the 6 p.m. television news. In defence of his strategy,

Laschinger —who managed Larry Grossman’s successful campaign last year for the leadership of the Ontario Conservatives—compared it to “crawling on your hands and knees until you see the whites of their eyes, going under the barbed wire and picking your spots for the last charge.”

The Conservatives faced problems even before the election campaign. As their lead over the NDP narrowed early

in 1985, many potential candidates decided not to run. Among them was Winnipeg Mayor William Norrie, who had been expected to contest the city riding of Fort Rouge. Some Tories also said they were uneasy with Filmon’s move toward the political centre. Many moderate Conservatives now say that if Filmon loses the election, a rightwing backlash may develop, keeping the party out of office for years.

Filmon’s attempt to capture the po-

litical middle faced another threat as well. Led by Winnipeg schoolteacher Sharon Carstairs, 43, the province’s third party, the Liberals, has fielded candidates in all 57 ridings. Carstairs’ principal goal: to upset the Conservative incumbent in the Winnipeg riding of River Heights and become the first Liberal leader in more than a decade to sit in the Manitoba legislature.

The language dispute that raged through the province less than two years ago has been raised only rarely. Pawley describes the dispute as “past history” and Filmon says that he does not want to renew the emotional debate. However, a continuing court challenge by the province’s 60,000 francophones to Manitoba’s Englishonly laws kept the issue from dying altogether. Last June the Supreme Court of Canada declared all of the laws invalid and gave Manitoba five years to translate them into French.

In a campaign of few issues, personalities might have been expected to come to the fore. But neither candidate has generated much political electricity. Filmon, a former Eaton’s junior executive who grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, has been criticized for a conventional outlook and lack of idealism. For his part, the premier, who was raised in a farming community near Brampton, Ont., has earned the nickname “Pastor Pawley” because of his dour demeanor and monotonous speaking style.

After the 1983 language dispute, Pawley began following a carefully crafted strategy to minimize confrontation and improve communications. Political fire fighting was kept to a minimum while the government landed a major power sale with the United States, allowing it to restart work on the $1.9-billion Limestone Dam. But analysts say some voters may not have forgiven Pawley—elected to the NDP leadership in 1979 after Ed Schreyer resigned to become governor generaltor the rancor of the language crisis.

The verdict that Manitoba voters deliver next week will be closely watched throughout the West. All three of the other western provinces are expected to hold elections this year, and NDP insiders claim that the party has a good chance of winning in two of them— Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Some New Democrats say that there is a good chance of returning to the situation that prevailed during the 1970s, when three NDP premiers—British Columbia’s David Barrett, Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney and Manitoba’s Ed Schreyer—held power in the West.