Manitoba faces a choice

MARY JANIGAN March 21 1988

Manitoba faces a choice

MARY JANIGAN March 21 1988

Manitoba faces a choice


It was the revenge of a disgruntled backbencher —and it toppled the Manitoba government. The backbencher was James Walding, who once threatened serious consequences if he did not receive a cabinet post. Those consequences occurred on March 8 when Walding unexpectedly defeated his own New Democratic Party in a critical 28-to-27 vote on a Conservative nonconfidence motion on the budget. Within hours Premier Howard Pawley set a provincial election date of April 26. Then, in a bid to improve his party’s election chances, the self-effacing premier resigned as NDP leader, plunging his shocked colleagues into a leadership contest. As Pawley later told Maclean's, “It was a tough decision, but [my resignation] was the best long shot that we had.”

Pawley’s defeat set off an election battle that will likely focus on the NDP’S ability to handle the economy— and, in particular, Manitoba’s controversial Crown corporations. With their party trailing badly in the polls and stripped of its leadership, NDP members said that they hoped a new leader would renew public confidence. But the shock waves from the defeat of the country’s only NDP government spread beyond the Manitoba border. Troubles at the provincial level could erode the federal party’s western power base—and tarnish its image as a possible winner in the upcoming federal election.

For the federal Conservatives, in contrast, Pawley’s unexpected defeat was a gratifying political bonus. The Manitoba premier was an outspoken opponent of Ottawa’s free trade agreement with the United States. His departure left Ontario’s David Peterson as the only premier still actively fighting that accord. More importantly, if Manitoba Conservative Leader Gary Filmon wins the election, the federal Tories will consolidate their hold on all three Prairie governments—and gain a powerful ally on free trade and the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Said one federal Tory: “It changes the balance of power in federal-provincial relations.”

The defeat ended the provincial New Democrats’ six-year hold on power. The party emerged from its March,

1986, re-election with 30 seats, compared with 26 for the Conservatives and one for Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs. Pawley appointed the NDP’S Myrna Phillips as Speaker, leaving 29 government members ranged against 27 opposition members. Then, last month, former health minister Laurent Desjardins resigned, leaving

Pawley’s government hanging by a slender, single-vote thread. That vote belonged to the increasingly discontented Walding.

Meanwhile, the government made a serious political mistake. Last December Bill Uruski, the minister responsible for the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp.—known as Autopac—announced that the Crown corporation was increasing its automobile insurance rates by an average of 24 per cent—and raising its deductible charges. The new fees angered many Manitobans. Uruski later reduced the increases to an average of 18 per cent, but the damage was lasting: a poll by

University of Manitoba Research Ltd. last month showed the resurgent Tories with 50.4 per cent of the decided votes, the New Democrats in decline at 25.4 per cent and the Liberals with 22.8 per cent.

While the NDP’S popularity skidded, Walding’s disaffection deepened. As Speaker in the legislature during

Pawley’s first government, he had angered his own party with his refusal to intervene when the Conservatives blocked government legislation to extend French-language services. Then, in the wake of the 1986 election, he implied that Pawley could not count on his support if the premier did not appoint him to the cabinet. Pawley left him on the back benches and Walding simmered. When Desjardins retired, Walding said, “Now I can perhaps influence things a little.”

That influence was short-lived—and erratic. Early last week Walding assured journalists that he liked the tone of the budget. Then, without warning, he defeated it.

Rushing from the legislature, he declared: “It is time for the people of Manitoba to decide whether this government still has a mandate. I don’t want that decision to be all on me. It is too much of a strain.”

The electorate’s verdict will depend in large part on its opinion of the NDP’s controversial record. The province has one of the nation’s highest rates of economic growth and one of the lowest unemployment rates. In the past two years the Pawley government has strengthened its human rights code and cut taxes for the poor. But it has also raised the sales tax, introduced a payroll tax on employers and imposed a two-per-cent surtax on middleand high-income taxpayers.

The government is also haunted by a devastating series of scandals at Crown corporations. Last spring it dismantled MTX Telecom Services Inc., which lost $27.4 million in a bid to sell telecommunications technology to Saudi Arabia. Then Autopac announced that it had lost $36 million on a venture into the high-risk reinsurance

field. As Greg Mason, the director of University of Manitoba Research Ltd., said: “The issue in the election is management of the public sector. The polls picked up a tremendous amount of anger over Autopac.”

It is too early to determine if the opposition parties can exploit that public anger—or if the NDP can assuage it. The Conservatives are $400,000 in debt—and divided over the effectiveness of Filmon’s low-key leadership. Federal Health Minister

Jake Epp quelled one incipient rebellion last month when he flatly refused to run for the provincial leadership and endorsed Filmon. But the former Winnipeg businessman remains an urban moderate saddled with a largely rural, right-wing caucus. Last week’s election call allowed Filmon to concentrate on the NDP. “Government waste and mismanagement will be in the forefront,” he said.

The Liberals have a $75,000 war chest—and the determined Carstairs as their only member of the legislature. But significantly, the party did not pick up support as the NDP plummeted in the polls. Undeterred, Carstairs vowed to campaign on the theme of competence with compassion: “We can show that you can manage competently and put the money that you save into needed programs.”

The NDP is $595,000 in debt—and it has to fund both the leadership contest and the election campaign. But party members calculate that public animosity will fade when the March 30 leadership convention puts the spotlight on new faces and new policies. Probable contenders include Manitoba MP William Blaikie and several members of the Pawley cabinet, among them Community Services Minister Maureen Hemphill, Finance Minister Eugene Kostyra and Urban Affairs Minister Gary Doer.

As his party geared up for battle, Pawley vowed to help during the campaign—and indicated that he may run in the next federal election. He also cited an encouraging precedent: just 17 days after winning the NDP leadership in Manitoba in 1969, Ed Schreyer took the previously dormant party to victory at the polls. “A good leadership contest,” Pawley told Maclean's, “will strengthen us.”