Timid, Distant and Bland

Commentary, Taxation, Rebecca Walberg

GARY Doer’s victory as leader of Manitoba’s NDP is not surprising.

Since entering the legislature in 1986, Doer has consistently shown himself to be a canny politician, and under his leadership the NDP has kept a tighter hold on the centre than its counterparts in other provinces, part of the reason for their third consecutive win.

The election was also carefully timed. Hugh McFadyen has been the provincial Conservative leader for just over a year, long enough for the publicity and enthusiasm of the leadership convention to have waned, and not long enough to have made a significant impression on Manitoba’s lethargic voters.

That the election was Doer’s to lose doesn’t mitigate the Conservatives’ failure. A provocative, groundbreaking platform might have been risky, but the potential payoff – a decisive victory and the chance to change Manitoba politics – would have been great. Instead, the Conservative campaign was timid, distant and bland.

Too many of McFadyen’s election promises were, or seemed to be, reactions to the NDP. When the NDP announced plans to hire more police officers, the Tories pledged to hire more still. Winnipeg already has a very high number of police per capita, and there is no evidence at all that more hiring would change anything. Redeploying existing officers, and changing the policies that govern their work, would be far more effective than simply increasing personnel.

Regarding health care, Premier Doer promised to put significantly more money into an irretrievably broken system. The Conservatives responded with vague calls for attracting more doctors to the province, a necessary step, but a tiny part of the puzzle.

The one truly noteworthy, out-of-the-box plank in the Tory platform was McFadyen’s announcement that he would bring the Jets back to Winnipeg. Unfortunately, this promise won few voters, while convincing many that the Conservative leadership had become unmoored from reality. If Winnipeg’s economy could not sustain an NHL franchise a decade ago, how could it attract or retain a team today?

The Tories failed, as well, to make Manitobans care. Given the issues that are prominent with voters – crime, health care, and taxes – this is remarkable. The presumption of many voters, and perhaps more importantly the media, is that left-wing parties are caring and right-wing parties are not.

The key to countering this is to show how average Manitobans are harmed by eight years of NDP government. Effective TV ads conveyed that the Conservatives would toughen up the justice system. But why stop there? There are, tragically, many examples of Manitobans who have been robbed, assaulted or murdered by ex-cons whose light sentences did nothing to protect society after their first convictions. Let their stories make the case for tougher sentencing and effective policing.

Arguments about waiting lists are impersonal; an interview with someone who has been unable to walk properly for a year, because of the lengthy wait for diagnoses, referrals and treatment, puts a human face to years of mismanaged health care. Telling voters that they need better health care won’t win votes. Showing them how every day, people suffer because they can’t get the care they need, will, especially if real change is offered.

McFadyen’s Conservatives gambled on becoming a barely right-of-centre version of the NDP. Stephen Harper’s federal party has enjoyed some success with this strategy, but has been dealt an entirely different hand. The federal Conservatives are competing with different opponents in each province, and can take advantage of divide-and-conquer tactics.

In Manitoba, the reality is different. In most provincial ridings, only the NDP and Tories fielded viable candidates. Voters who were happy with the status quo weren’t tricked into voting for a different party by promises of more of the same, and those who wanted a change weren’t given a reason to trust that McFadyen’s team would deliver.

This is the perfect time to sell the electorate on new directions for policy. Major American cities have experimented with their policing, education, welfare and housing infrastructures, and in many cases have transformed themselves. There is ample evidence that Manitobans are fed up with crippling taxes, inaccessible health care, and the constant exodus of young adults. Offered a choice between a confident incumbent who promised to keep a dysfunctional system, and a largely unknown challenger who offered minuscule changes, Manitoba opted for the devil it knew. Until the Liberals or Conservatives present an assertive and credible alternative, this won’t change.