Gloves come off as election writ drops in Manitoba
Published Tuesday, September 6, 2011 5:43PM EDT
WINNIPEG - Moments before Premier Greg Selinger officially launched Manitoba's provincial election Tuesday, there were already signs the campaign is likely to have a more negative tone.
As he walked from the legislature to the lieutenant-governor's office, Selinger was greeted by the head of a taxpayer lobby group, which had parked a van outside with a sign denouncing the province's increasing debt load.
"Want a ride?" Colin Craig, local director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, asked with a sly smile.
"Where's your friend, Hughie?" Selinger fired back, in reference to Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, as he continued walking.
An hour later, Selinger was telling more than 300 party faithful a Tory government would spell disaster for Manitoba.
"We know the Conservatives would cut the things that matter to Manitoba families. We can't let them near our health-care system," the NDP premier told the crowd.
"Can we believe Mr. McFadyen will protect our lakes and rivers?"
"No," party members responded in unison.
Selinger also accused McFadyen of having a secret plan to privatize Manitoba Hydro, fire nurses and cut public-sector jobs -- accusations which the Tory leader has repeatedly and consistently denied.
Across town, McFadyen was accusing the NDP of having its own hidden agenda.
"Mr. Selinger says he will balance the budget by 2014, which we know can't happen without one of two things -- deep spending cuts or a major tax increase for Manitoba families," McFadyen said.
"It's time for Mr. Selinger to be honest about his plans after this election. Is he misleading Manitobans about his plan to raise taxes or is he misleading Manitobans about his plan to balance the budget in three years?
"It's one or the other and he needs to come clean."
Analysts and opinion polls suggest Selinger is in a tight battle to take the New Democrats to a fourth consecutive majority on Oct. 4 -- a date set in stone under the province's new fixed election law.
The campaign is the first real test of Selinger's popularity. He was chosen to succeed Gary Doer when Doer resigned in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the U.S.
NDP support dipped in opinion polls several months after the transition when the economy appeared set to falter and government-backed projects such as Winnipeg's new football stadium needed a controversial infusion of cash.
But the most recent polls suggest the New Democrats are running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, although the NDP holds a substantial edge in seat-rich Winnipeg.
The province's economic growth has remained slow but steady, housing prices are stable, unemployment is low and the NHL has returned to Winnipeg, much to the joy of thousands who partied in the city's streets when the announcement was made
That doesn't leave a lot of fuel to feed a public appetite for change, one analyst suggested.
"That's the typical rule in Canadian politics, that people vote governments out. They don't vote governments in," said Jared Wesley, who teaches political science at the University of Manitoba and the University of Alberta.
The NDP has also rejected federal overtures to adopt the harmonized sales tax, so the government is not facing the kind of consumer backlash seen in Ontario and British Columbia.
The opposition has focused much of its energy on accusing the government of bungling the province's finances as well as some major projects. The Tories pepper their pamphlets and speeches with the word "mismanagement" to describe the NDP's five straight budget deficits, rising health-care costs and the spiralling cost of a new hydro transmission line called BiPole Three.
Manitoba Hydro, a Crown corporation, wanted to build a short, direct line through the boreal forest on the eastern side of the province. But the government ordered Hydro to reroute the proposed line hundreds of kilometres to the west so as to protect the forest. The Tories say the change will boost the project's costs by billions of dollars. The government says the additional price will be recouped through export sales.
The opposition parties have signalled they will make crime a campaign issue. They accuse the NDP of failing to stem the province's high rates of homicide, robbery and assaults. There have been several shootings and fire bombings in Winnipeg this summer that police believe are part of turf wars between rival biker gangs. There have also been a rash of arsons.
The Tories promised Tuesday to crack down on gangs and set up a police-dog training centre, while Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard started his campaign by promising to give kids an alternative to gangs.
At a Winnipeg community centre, Gerrard said his party's candidates would push for $4.6 million more for recreational programming.
"Study after study have shown that funding and getting young people involved in recreation means that young people are not committing crimes," he said. "For every 57 young people who are playing hockey, that's 57 young people who are not in gangs."
The NDP has also been criticized for its handling of record flooding this spring along the Assiniboine River. The government was caught off-guard by water levels in May that threatened to swamp Brandon and some smaller communities. The government also came under fire from flooded cottage owners and First Nations residents along Lake Manitoba, who were driven from their homes by rising water. They blamed the province's decision to divert more water than usual from the Assiniboine into the lake.
The election will hinge on suburban ridings in south and west Winnipeg -- traditional Tory seats that have swung to the NDP in the past three elections.
The last vote in 2007 saw the New Democrats capture 36 of the legislature's 57 seats. The Tories were reduced to 19 and the Liberals won two.
The Tories are hoping for a better result partly because of Doer's departure. He was the face of the NDP for more than two decades and his outgoing manner and charm resulted in his personal popularity polling above his party's support level.
Selinger, by contrast, is not as well-known and is more reserved. The former finance minister and academic is more at ease discussing issues in small groups than speaking to a row of television cameras. He is a "policy wonk," according to Wesley, who may try to change his style for the campaign.
"His strategists have got to make a decision as to whether they want him to act like Greg ... or whether they want to push him out of his shell and turn him into something he's not."
The Tories have recruited some big-name candidates to run against NDP cabinet ministers in swing ridings. Popular city Coun. Gord Steeves will take on Health Minister Theresa Oswald in Seine River. Former Olympic speedskater Susan Auch is running against Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau in Assiniboia.
But the Tories are facing an uphill battle in Winnipeg because of low support for the Liberals. Traditionally, the Tories have formed government whenever the Liberals have been strong enough to drain urban votes from the NDP. But for the last dozen years under leader Gerrard, the Liberals have garnered about 13 per cent of the vote in each election and have not captured more than two seats.