Will Three Be A Charm?

Brendan O'Hallarn for CBC Online News | Updated April 3, 2007

It could be said that two maxims apply to Manitoba elections: they're always tight races, and it's nigh impossible for a party to win three in a row.

How tough? It hasn't been done since Duff Roblin pulled it off in 1966. And two giants of Manitoba politics — New Democrat Ed Schreyer and Progressive Conservative Gary Filmon — were defeated trying to win that elusive third majority.

In 2003, Premier Gary Doer's NDP defied the first Manitoba election axiom. His party achieved record levels of popular support and won 35 of Manitoba's 57 seats in a landslide victory.

Now, Doer is trying to defy the other conventional wisdom and win a third successive majority government.

The NDP enters the campaign poised to rely on its strongest card: the enduring appeal of Doer. Party spin doctors endlessly point out that Doer has had a long run near the top of the popularity rankings for Canadian premiers.

Even his harshest critics admit Doer's likeability puts a cheerful face on a government that has alienated rural Manitoba, turned off the business community, and shown a near-limitless capacity to spend money — the provincial budget has grown by almost 50 percent in fewer than eight years.

It hasn't hurt that the NDP has governed for almost eight years of uninterrupted prosperity in Canada. Manitoba has seen transfer payments from Ottawa skyrocket, thanks to explosive growth in Alberta and B.C. Low unemployment has also kept income- and sales-tax money flowing into provincial coffers.

All that dough has helped Doer oversee a building boom in the province, beginning the expansion of the Red River Floodway, constructing a new Hydro building downtown, and chipping in for a sparkling downtown arena.

Tories: Government-in-waiting

Meanwhile, the opposition Conservatives have spent the last few years positioning themselves as a government-in-waiting.

They've tried — though often without success — to stake out different territory from that of the centrist NDP on health care, on tax cuts and especially on crime.

For the past two years, they've steadily ramped up criticism of the government over its handling of sensitive files such as Child and Family Services and the doomed Crocus Investment Fund.

The Manitoba legislature was at a standstill last spring, as the opposition parties tried to force the government to call a public inquiry into why the labour-sponsored Crocus Fund collapsed suddenly in 2005.

The government has refused to call an inquiry, saying any action required was spelled out by then provincial auditor Jon Singleton.

Grits: no lack of effort

Jon Gerrard is entering his third election campaign as Liberal leader. Last election he doubled his party's seat count. To two.

Except for two heady years in the 1980s, when the Liberals almost won power under now Senator Sharon Carstairs, Manitoba's traditionally third party hasn't been a factor for two generations.

It's not for lack of trying by Gerrard. He's been at least an equal partner with the Tories in pointing out government shortcomings in oversight. Gerrard has used his credentials as a medical doctor to try to demonstrate that he would do a better job with Manitoba's ailing health care system.

But the electoral math just isn't good for the Liberals. Provincial voter support tends to polarize to the left and right. Even when the Liberals do get votes, they tend to be spread relatively equally across the province.

In comparison, the NDP vote has always been concentrated in Winnipeg, Brandon and Manitoba's north. The Conservative power base has always been southern Manitoba outside of Winnipeg, and the provincial capital's affluent suburbs.

Few ridings decide

In fact, that's something else unique about Manitoba elections — they're actually decided by very few ridings. It's been said that the NDP and Conservatives start each election with about 20 seats already won. That leaves fewer than 20 where the race is truly a race.

The NDP's big advantage on election night is the fact that many of its strongest members — Health Minister Theresa Oswald, Competitiveness Training and Trade Minister Scott Smith, Education Minister Peter Bjornson and Science, Technology, Energy and Mines Minister Jim Rondeau — are occupying those marginal seats.

The Conservatives must find a way to swing at least a few of those ridings their way on election night, or the NDP is likely to pull off the impossible — leaving the Tories another long four years in Opposition.

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About The Author

Brendan O'Hallarn
has been a journalist for CBC since 2001, working as a television producer and radio reporter.

Prior to that, he worked in newspapers for seven years, including a stint covering the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Sun.

He's never quite shaken the political bug, and is a keen follower of Manitoba politics.

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