For two days last week, Manitoba’s Conservative Premier Gary Filmon enjoyed a national profile as he chaired the annual conference of premiers at the Westin Hotel in downtown Winnipeg. But within three hours of formally closing that meeting on Aug. 14, Filmon returned to the more grinding task of trying to win a majority mandate for his twoyear-old minority government in a general election set for Sept. 11. The premier, dressed casually in a green sport shirt and tan slacks, exuded confidence as he munched Italian honey cookies and mingled with voters at Winnipeg’s annual two-week Folklorama multicultural festival. And the next day, at his own nomination meeting at a local school, Filmon told supporters that his campaign would focus on leadership. Manitobans, he said, “have had a chance to see me in action for the past 2lh years. I am confident that they will feel comfortable choosing me.”
Filmon’s enthusiasm on the hustings reflects encouraging results in pre-election opinion palls. According to an Angus Reid poll taken in june, Filmon’s Tories are supported by 51 per cent of decided voters, compared with 28 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the New Democratic Party.
But the premier, a former engineer and Businessman who has led the Tories since 1983—his 48th birthday is Aug. 24—has tried twice before to translate early leads in the polls into decisive electoral victory, and failed. In
1986, after entering a spring election campaign ahead of rival parties in opinion polls, Filmon’s Tories lost to the incumbent NDP under Howard Pawley. Then, in April, 1988, after the NDP lost a vote of confidence on an unpopular budget, the Tories again entered the campaign with a commanding lead in the polls, but managed to win only 25 seats in the 57-seat legislature, compared with 20 for the Liberals and 12 for the NDP. In both cases, some Tories blamed Filmon personally for the disappointing results and urged a change in leadership. But his popularity in the province surged when he joined with opposition party leaders in resisting the Meech Lake accord during this spring’s constitutional battles. And to the chagrin of Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs and NDP Leader Gary Doer, who both supported him, the Tories now calculate that their party can capitalize on Filmon’s claim to strong leadership.
Indeed, the solidarity that Manitoba’s three party leaders showed during the Meech debate has dissolved into personal bickering. For her part, Carstairs has accused the Tories of waging a “whisper campaign” against her to remind voters that she admitted to taking tranquillizers during the high-pressure June negotiations in Ottawa. In response, the Liberal leader recalled that Filmon had publicly admitted to suffering a “physical collapse” following the failure of an early business venture. Filmon has said that Carstairs is “not a person I would ever look upon as a friend.” And
Doer, 42, a former union president, has dismissed both his opponents as “the gold-dust twins: they go on the same cocktail circuit around River Heights and Tuxedo”—a reference to two of Winnipeg’s wealthiest ridings— represented, respectively, by Carstairs and Filmon.
Beyond the personal invective, the party leaders are concentrating on building up their respective political bases. Winnipeg, home to 58 per cent of Manitoba’s population and 31 of the 57 provincial ridings, is the key battleground. In the 1988 election, when Carstairs led her party from her one-seat toehold in the legislature to the verge of a dramatic upset, the Liberals won all but one of their 20 seats within the city limits. “We could gain seats here,” says Carstairs, 48, a former schoolteacher, “especially if people get the idea that a vote for the NDP helps re-elect a Tory government. The normal place for a disenchanted NDP vote is us.” By contrast, most observers expect the Tories to remain dominant in the rural ridings of eastern and western Manitoba and the NDP to retain four seats that they hold in the sparsely populated North, where one-industry mining towns and Indian communities dominate the political landscape.
Filmon’s challenge is to extend his appeal beyond the party’s core rural support. “Part of the strategy is to reinforce his image of a leader,” said political pollster Greg Mason of Winnipeg-based Prairie Research Associates Inc. “The other part is to try to divorce himself from Brian Mulroney.” And Filmon appeared eager to distance himself from the Prime Minister. On his campaign bus, the premier’s name, emblazoned in large blue letters, dwarfs the mention of Filmon’s party affiliation. And even in the rural Tory strongholds, voter sentiments suggest that those tactics may well be necessary. “They will likely vote Tory again around here,” said farmer Frank Skinner, 38, as he dumped a truckload of rye last week into the Manitoba Wheat Pool’s weather-beaten elevator at tiny Beresford, 160 km west of Winnipeg, “but it has nothing to do with Mulroney.” Added Skinner, in a reference to Canada’s flagging economy: “The Prime Minister likes the Third World so much he wants to make Canada a member.”
Still, Filmon has based his campaign firmly on traditional small-c conservative themes, stressing the need to increase investor confidence and pledging that a re-elected Tory government will streamline the civil service. Last week, he flew to The Pas, Man., where he told voters that the 1989 sale of a Crownowned pulp-and-paper mill to privately owned Repap Enterprises will mean more secure jobs and more economic activity. Those claims may not sell well among all voters. But Filmon, clearly, is confident that his current attempt to win a majority will prove to be third-time lucky. If he is wrong, he is certain to face renewed calls for a review of his leadership—and sharply diminished prospects for a fourth chance.
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