Prairie Neighbours Wealth Could Pose Problem for Doer

Commentary, Equalization, Frontier Centre

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer’s biggest obstacle to winning a third term in 2007 may not be his political opponents, but instead high energy prices that have boosted the economies of Saskatchewan and Alberta and left Manitoba looking relatively weak by comparison.

A nagging feeling of falling behind its two energy-rich neighbours could result in some voter dissatisfaction, according to one analyst.

“(Manitobans) always think we’re a little better than Saskatchewan,” says Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba political science professor.

“The fact that Saskatchewan now is off the recipient list for equalization (payments from the federal government) and so on, I think, bothers some Manitobans.”

Manitoba is slated to receive $1.7 billion this year from the federal equalization program, which is designed to help poorer provinces offer services similar to richer ones.

Manitoba’s economy has been growing, although the rate lagged behind every province west of Quebec between 2002 and 2005, according to Statistics Canada.

Doer points to a low unemployment rate and a housing market that has surged since his NDP government took office in 1999 as proof that, for the average person, things are fine.

“People judge the economy by the value of their homes,” Doer said.

“If your house values have gone up and you see your neighbours selling their houses for more money down the road, people generally believe they’re better off today than they were a few years ago.”

Doer also points out that unlike Saskatchewan, Manitoba has a population that is still growing, thanks to a successful immigration program.

He admits that, like other provinces, Manitoba is challenged to compete with Alberta, where a booming economy and high wages have siphoned thousands of workers a year from the rest of the Prairies.

Now halfway through the fourth year of his second mandate, Doer has been coy about when he will call an election. He said he doesn’t want to clash with a federal campaign, which many people expect this spring.

Doer’s opponents have already signalled they will focus on the economy as a main campaign theme.

The Progressive Conservatives, who form the official Opposition with 19 of 57 legislature seats, say voters are tired of seeing university graduates leave the province for greener pastures.

Doer’s other main hurdle to re-election may be the fact that some voters will feel it’s time for a change after seven years of the NDP.

“You’ve been in power that long, you’re bound to have people disgruntled,” Thomas said. “There’s a cumulative impact of a series of decisions that will take their toll.”