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Editorial: Is Northern Manitoba incumbent vulnerable in federal election that no one wants?

A common refrain about the Sept. 20 federal election, triggered when recently appointed Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon granted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Aug.
stock ballot box voting

A common refrain about the Sept. 20 federal election, triggered when recently appointed Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon granted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Aug. 15 request to dissolve parliament, is that it is an election that nobody apart from Trudeau and the Liberals wants.

Included among that group may be long-time Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton.

First elected in 2008, Ashton hasn’t faced many tough races to get re-elected in the intervening years, with the exception of 2015 when Liberal candidate Rebecca Chartrand, who didn’t even live in the riding, came within about 1,000 votes of unseating the incumbent. Ashton reclaimed her front-running form in 2019, when she defeated the Liberals’ Judy Klassen, a former member of the Manitoba legislature from St. Theresa Point, by more than 6,000 votes. So why is there any reason to think things might be different this time?

Well, for one thing, most observers are predicting that the Liberals will get re-elected and that the main unknown is whether or not they will be able to achieve majority status. It’s always possible that voters will decide to cast their ballots strategically, as they tried to when Trudeau first became prime minister, by throwing their support behind the expected winning party in an effort to have a representative on the government side of the House of Commons for the first time in seemingly forever.

Secondly, Ashton angered many Canadians, including residents of her riding and others, when she announced just after Christmas that she had gone to visit her ailing grandmother in Greece, the second trip she took there during the COVID-19 pandemic. She lost her critic’s roles in the house as a result and was seen by many as not practising what she preached when it came to navigating COVID-19 safely. As an old saying about politics goes, people don’t get voted in as much as they get voted out, and it’s possible this anger could make winning enough votes to capture the seat more difficult this time around than it has been before, although the Liberals do not yet have a publicly announced candidate for Northern Manitoba.

Despite the lack of a candidate, one could say that it seems as if the Liberals may see Ashton as vulnerable and one possible step towards reclaiming majority rule. In the weeks leading up to the election call, the federal government announced numerous joint funding initiatives for Ashton’s riding with the provincial government, including a new pool for Flin Flon, highway repairs in the north, money for the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill and more than $60 million for road and water line work in the City of Thompson. While the process for selecting these projects is not primarily politically driven, it isn’t inconceivable that some of the federal government’s decisions were influenced with an eye to taking back the seat that they last held from 2006 to 2008, when Tina Keeper was the MP.

The Conservative party does already have a candidate for the riding and finished second in the 2019 election so perhaps the Liberals aren’t the only party with a chance to unseat Ashton. But based on the 2015 results and the fact that a Conservative MP hasn’t captured the most votes since the mid-1970s, the unknown Liberal candidate still seems most likely to cause an upset.