Manitoba’s political cold war is over; let the real race begin.
The provincial election campaign finally got into full swing last week, after a couple of quiet months during which the government was prohibited from making major announcements but without any real mud-slinging to speak of. Now the gloves are off and the NDP, Progressive Conservatives and Liberals are in a no-holds-barred battle to see which will be the one to form the next provincial government.
One might assume the NDP would be facing an uphill battle as the incumbent government of the past 16 years and the party that increased the provincial sales tax from seven to eight per cent without putting the question to a referendum. On the other hand, the Liberals, though their popularity has risen, had only one MLA for the past five years and are somewhat of an unknown quantity to most voters – the party hasn’t formed the government since the early 1950s. You don’t have to look back quite so far to find a Progressive Conservative government, but the 1990s are still a distant memory for many and practically the olden days for younger voters, some of whom won’t remember a time when the NDP was not Manitoba’s government.
The PC party seems to be hoping for a breakthrough in the north, with party leader Brian Pallister stopping in The Pas, Flin Flon and Thompson on the first weekend of the campaign. The odds of his party’s candidate in Thompson – local business owner Kelly Bindle – unseating incumbent Steve Ashton, who’s held the seat for the past 35 years since defeating the Progressive Conservatives’ Ken MacMaster in 1981, may not seem strong, but voters can be fickle and make abrupt changes in direction when the mood takes them. Nonetheless, until the Progressive Conservatives actually regain power in Thompson, it’s probably wise for observers to remain skeptical of their chances. Northern Manitoba has been NDP territory for a long time and there isn’t much reason to expect that to change, though perhaps there’s a stronger possibility in the Flin Flon riding, where incumbent MLA Clarence Pettersen, who lost the party’s nomination to Tom Lindsey in late 2015, is running as an independent, raising the prospect that he’ll split the left-leaning vote and allow either the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives to wrest the seat away from the NDP. In Thompson, the Liberals don’t seem to put much stock in their chances of dethroning Ashton. As the election campaign entered its second week, they had yet to announce a candidate in Thompson.
A lot can happen in four weeks and it remains to be seen if the Progressive Conservatives, who were preferred by 44 per cent of decided voters as of March 19, compared to 24 per cent each for the NDP and Liberals, according to a Postmedia poll, will be able to make the jump from opposition to government. The NDP came out swinging as the campaign opened, repeating their message that Pallister’s party was planning major cuts to services. The PC leader wasn’t pulling any punches either, calling NDP leader Greg Selinger the “six-million-dollar man,” saying that’s how much he’s spent in excess of revenues every day since becoming Manitoba’s premier in 2011.
Ultimately, what the polls and the politicians say won’t matter. The only voice that really carries weight is the collective one of the voters who mark their ballots on April 19. Until those votes are counted, it’s a month-long guessing game.