Monday, March 21, 2016

Manitoba Election: After 16 years the NDP can expect to leave office

A version of this has been cross-posted at iPolitics.

Manitoba will elect a new government when voters go to the polls on April 19. Barring dramatic and unexpected developments during the campaign, Manitobans will elect a PC government lead by Brian Pallister, a one-time federal Canadian Alliance and Conservative MP.

Should he win, Pallister would displace an NDP regime that has governed since 1999, when Gary Doer defeated incumbent PC Gary Filmon. Recent polls have given the Progressive Conservatives a large lead. However, average Conservative support is registering just a little higher than the nearly 44 percent the party achieved in the October, 2011 election.

The big difference has been a striking increase in Liberal support at the expense of the NDP: the big lead comes from an even split in support between the two parties. Polls currently suggest they might end up with as many as 40 of 57 constituencies.

The NDP government of Greg Selinger has been in political trouble since 2013, when it reversed a campaign promise from 2011 not to increase the sales tax in order to generate revenue to finance infrastructure investment needed to respond to a series of unprecedented floods. The tax hike (from 7 percent to 8) was followed a year later by an extraordinary rebellion in party ranks that forced Selinger to defend his leadership at a party convention in 2015 - where he barely scraped by.

Liberal gains should perhaps not be surprising given the strong showing of the federal Liberals in Manitoba last October (the party captured 7 of Manitoba's 14 seats). One might think that a key advantage for the Liberals is the popularity of the new federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, and no doubt he has helped the Liberal brand name.  However, the federal and provincial parties have an icy relationship and the federal party apparently does not think much of Manitoba Liberal leader Rana Bokhari.

Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mia Rabson offered this account in February:

"There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the leader," said one federal Liberal source speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It’s a different organization than us. They are just completely different."

Some of Bokhari’s policies, such as privatizing liquor sales, are too far to the right for federal Grits, and the fact she hired former Tories solidified the feeling she doesn’t have a lot in common with Team Trudeau. (Provincial Liberal Director of Communications Mike) Brown used to work in the regional ministerial office of former Conservative MP Vic Toews. To say there was no love lost between Toews and federal Liberals would be an understatement, and there are many who simply don’t trust anyone who worked for him.

That has prevented federal Liberal riding associations from handing over their lengthy electoral lists of supporters, volunteers and donors to provincial candidates.

Historically the Manitoba Liberals have traditionally leaned to the right of their federal counterparts so it appears nothing has changed. Still the surge in Liberal support may have the party thinking in terms of 1988, a year when the Manitoba Liberals, after years of electoral drought, suddenly found both federal and provincial success. In the 1988 Manitoba election under leader Sharon Carstairs the party captured two-thirds of the constituencies in the City of Winnipeg just as an incumbent NDP government was failing. If the province stopped at Winnipeg's Perimeter Highway there would have been a large Liberal majority government that year. However, the Liberals won just one seat outside Winnipeg, allowing PC Gary Filmon to form a minority government that he would convert to a long-term majority two years later.

For the Manitoba PCs division of the electorate between two opposition parties has been a key to electoral success. For the NDP success has come at the expense of the Liberals. The reciprocal character of NDP/Liberal support over time is illustrated in the graphic.

There are other differences: this is Rana Bokhari's first election as Liberal leader while 1988 was the second for Sharon Carstairs. She had already achieved at least modest success in the 1986 Manitoba election including winning a seat in the legislature. Bokhari may not repeat the 1988 success but some gains are likely.

The NDP won the 2011 election in no small part due to some highly successful attacks on the previous PC government's record in office. The dissatisfaction levels they face this time make repeating that effort seemingly impossible. They would be better off going after the provincial Liberals to strengthen the party's position over the longer run.

And the Pallister Tories may be planting the seeds of their own destruction. How many Manitoba voters have noticed the caveat in the PC platform about the sales tax: it won't be reduced immediately but rather as the PC website declares: 'PCs will roll back PST to seven per cent within first mandate'. In other words it will be a four-year wait, and getting there could well involve highly unpopular spending cuts.

The slow growth of recent years has put all governments in Canada under acute fiscal pressures that have yet to let up. There will be no special dispensation for Brian Pallister. After railing for years agains the fiscal record of the NDP he now cautiously says he will work towards balancing the budget, promising only to slow the rate of increase in spending undertaken by the Selinger government.  The sales tax cut must wait.

One paradox of this election is that the Selinger government is not getting the credit a government might expect to receive for the relatively strong growth in the Manitoba economy - perhaps because New Democrats have a reputation as wobbly economic managers. Pallister is going to need this growth to continue and strengthen, if his optimistic plan is to have any hope of succeeding. It appears certain now that he will get his chance.

Governments don't get to stay in office forever, as we saw last year in Alberta. A similar reality is about to confront the Manitoba NDP.  However, if history is any guide, just as the federal Liberals achieved a restoration to power on Parliament Hill after a decade in the wilderness, we might expect to see something similar down the road in Manitoba.