CANADA

Manitoba's three-way showdown

Seeking a third term, Gary Filmon faces stiff competition from his Liberal and NDP rivals

MARY NEMETH April 3 1995
CANADA

Manitoba's three-way showdown

Seeking a third term, Gary Filmon faces stiff competition from his Liberal and NDP rivals

MARY NEMETH April 3 1995

Manitoba's three-way showdown

Seeking a third term, Gary Filmon faces stiff competition from his Liberal and NDP rivals

Paul Edwards brought his wife, Anne MacKay, and their newborn son, Adam, home from the hospital last week, just hours after Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon called a provincial election. Edwards, leader of Manitoba’s resurgent Liberal party, is an old hand in the baby department. “Been there, done that,” he joked, cradling his fourth child in the crook of his arm. But at age 34, he is something of a political infant himself, more than a decade younger than either of his two opponents going into the campaign for Manitoba’s April 25 vote. It will be Edwards’s first election as party leader, while the NDP’s Gary Doer (with two elections under his belt) and the Conservatives’ Filmon (with three) are familiar faces on the campaign trail. Still, with recent opinion polls showing the three parties locked in a wide-open race, Edwards’s main challenge is to assert his identity. “People, in particular the undecided voters, need to know who the leader is to support a party,” he said. “And, of course, I’m at a disadvantage there.”

That the Liberals are in the mnning at all is a remarkable showing for a party that has not held power in Manitoba since 1958. And much of his party’s success is due to the popularity of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s federal Liberals. That runs counter to historical precedent. In the past, provincial electorates tended to vote against the party holding power in Ottawa. In fact, Filmon bucked that trend in Manitoba’s 1990 election largely because of his opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord, engineered by his deeply unpopular federal counterpart, Brian Mulroney. This year, the fact that Chrétien has boosted Edwards’s fortunes may have positive implications for Liberals in other election-ready provinces like British Columbia and Ontario. Still, Edwards faces a tough fight. An Angus Reid Group poll released last week showed the Tories and the Liberals virtually tied, with 37-per-cent and 35-per-cent support, respectively, among decided voters, while the NDP was still within striking distance with 21 per cent. “It would require a fortune-teller rather than a political scientist to predict what will happen,” quips University of Manitoba political studies professor Tom Peterson.

Hitting the hustings

CONSERVATIVE LEADER GARY FILMON, 52, has been an MLA since 1979, Tory leader since 1983 and premier since 1988. The son of immigrants, Filmon grew up in Winnipeg’s ethnically diverse North End. He married Janice Wainwright, the daughter of a wealthy Winnipeg businessman, in 1963; they have four children. Filmon holds a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Manitoba. QUOTE: “This campaign isn’t about past accomplishments. It’s about tomorrow.”

The Manitoba legislature has 57 seats. At dissolution, the Conservatives held 29, compared with 20 for the New Democrats and six for the Liberals. (There were two vacancies.) The contenders in the current election campaign:

NDP LEADER GARY DOER, WHO TURNS 47 on March 31, has been an MLA since 1986 and party leader since 1988. Born and raised in Winnipeg, he worked as a guard at the Manitoba Youth Centre and was president of the Manitoba Government Employees Association for seven years. In 1988, he married Virginia Devine, a onetime aide to former NDP premier Howard Pawley. The couple have two children. QUOTE: “We should stop giving breaks to big business in Manitoba and start giving breaks to kids in our school system.”

LIBERAL LEADER PAUL EDWARDS, 34, has been an MLA since 1988 and party leader since June, 1993. Bom in Kingston, Ont., the son of a United Church minister, Edwards holds a law degree from Queen's University. He moved to Manitoba in 1986, two years after he married Anne MacKay, the daughter of a prominent Winnipeg lawyer. They have four children. QUOTE: “We’re pleased people see us as an alternative.”

Both Filmon and Doer are counting on changes announced in the Feb. 27 federal budget—including the transfer of air force headquarters, which employs about 600 people, from Winnipeg to Ottawa, and the elimination of the annual $560-million Crow benefit to western

farmers—to hurt the provincial Liberals. Doer points out that several key ridings were decided by fewer than 400 votes in 1990, and “you only need 200 people to change their minds after that federal budget.”

Beyond the possible federal influence, the party leaders are busily staking out their respective political turf. Filmon is running on his record, including a strong law-and-order agenda and seven straight years of fiscal austerity, leading to the coming year’s surplus budget—the first in Manitoba since 1973. Doer is stressing the effect of those budget cuts on health care and social services, while Edwards is attacking the government over its grants and loans to big business and its controversial introduction of video lottery terminals in 1993. The Liberal leader is also hoping to tum his youth to his benefit. “I believe we need a new start, a more innovative, creative form of government,” he says. “And I think in that, my age can be an advantage.”

If Edwards’s main challenge is to convince voters to gamble on a newcomer, Filmons is exactly the opposite. Party leader since 1983, he led a minority government from 1988 to 1990 and a slim majority government since then. And Manitobans have only rarely elected premiers to a third term. Filmon used to be perceived as a weak leader, and there was talk within the party in the mid-1980s of dumping him. But he is now a generally well-liked and polished political performer. That much was clear one morning last week as he toured a trendy new Winnipeg shopping area, The Forks Market, spending an hour shaking hands with passersby and chatting up shopkeepers. He even rolled up his shirtsleeves to shoot pool with a local reporter before lunch.

But while Filmon was smooth and friendly, his appeal was not always effective. “I voted PC in the last election because my family always voted that way,” said Ashley Whyard, 21, who works at a frozen yogurt booth at the market. “But I’ve decided to support the Liberals this time. Mr. Filmon is a nice man. But I think it’s time for fresh blood, and I’ve been really pleased with Jean Chrétien.”

But others praised the premier’s handling of government finances.

‘The PCs are least in favor of giving money away,” said Matthew Mitchell, a 45-year-old municipal clerk and Filmon supporter, as he ate lunch at The Forks. In fact, last week’s Angus Reid poll found that most Manitobans approve of Filmon’s economic record. In addition to the March 9 provincial budget, which projected a $48-million surplus for 1995-1996, the Tory government has also introduced proposed balanced-budget legislation that would force cabinet ministers to take a 20-per-cent pay cut if their governments run deficits in the future, as well as a bill that would require a plebiscite on major tax increases. Both those measures died on the order table when Filmon called the election. “The way voters can get them passed,” said the premier, “is by re-electing this government.”

The NDP’s Doer calls that a “cynical” manipu_ lation of the electorate. And both he and Ed| wards criticize Filmon for relying on gaming I and lottery revenues to balance the books. But 1 creating jobs and investing in education and I health care are Doer’s main themes. He is taris geting the Conservatives, who have cut health I funding in each of the past three years. And alI though Filmon argues that, on a per capita ba9 sis, health-care funding in Manitoba is still the £ third-highest among Canadian provinces, he is ?* —ipg clearly vulnerable on

' P the issue: last week’s

poll showed that 63 per cent of Manitobans disapprove of the Tories’ record on health care.

Doer is also trying to cast his two main opponents as ideological soul mates. Edwards describes the federal budget— which reduced transfer payments for health, social services and postsecondary education—as “tough but fair,” and Doer claims that proves the Liberal leader’s lack of commitment to social programs. “We’re going to tie the Liberals and the Tories into the same agenda,” Doer said last week in an interview aboard his campaign van. “The Tories are cutting health, education, social services—so are the Liberals. We’re not going to let them get a free ride.”

Although Doer is trailing in the polls, his party has traditionally held an advantage in Manitoba elections because NDP voters are concentrated in key ridings: in 1990, the NDP tied the Liberals in popular vote, but walked away with 20 seats while the Liberals took only seven. And with all three parties very much in the running, the five-week campaign will be critical. But barring a major breakthrough or stumble by one or more of the main contenders, political analysts say Manitoba could well end up with a minority government. The last one, led by Filmon, was a fragile, two-year affair. If history repeats itself, this year’s campaign will lead only to another short-term solution to Manitoba’s political equation.

MARY NEMETH