Opinion

Manitoba premier may find an ally in Doug Ford, but it will be a tricky balancing act for Pallister

Doug Ford's election victory in Ontario presents an opportunity for Manitoba's premier — but one Brian Pallister may need to be cautious about embracing, says political scientist Karine Levasseur.

Brian Pallister needs to avoid being painted with populist brush, says Karine Levasseur

While there are similarities in the elections that brought Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, left, and Ontario's Doug Ford, right, to power, 'there are many different shades of conservatism,' says Karine Levasseur. (Michael Fazio/CBC; Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Doug Ford's election victory in Ontario presents an opportunity for Manitoba's premier — but one Brian Pallister may need to be cautious about embracing.

The latest provincial elections in the two provinces share eerily similar characteristics. First, the elections resulted in a crushing victory for Progressive Conservative parties led by Brian Pallister and Doug Ford. Second, these elections mark the return of Progressive Conservatives to a governing role after being cast into the political wilderness as opposition parties, in 1999 and 2003 respectively.

With Ford's recent victory in Ontario, to what extent can Pallister rely on him as an ally? The answer is mixed, I argue.

At first blush, we might expect Ford to be an ideal ally for Pallister. After all, both ran campaigns that emphasized fiscal responsibility and the need to rein in the debt/deficit, making it clear that they have inherited a fiscal mess.

Brian Pallister's 2016 campaign, like Doug Ford's this year, emphasized fiscal responsibility. That could make Ford an ally for Pallister, says Karine Levasseur. (CBC)

With Ford's electoral win, Pallister has an ally that he can point to and show Manitobans that reducing spending and making more targeted investments are good decisions. Surely what is good for Canada's economic powerhouse is good for a smaller province like Manitoba.

Moreover, Pallister can rely on Ford as an ally when grappling with the federal government on issues of shared importance. Given Canada's highly decentralized nature of governing and the many policy areas that have overlapping jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments, having an ally with similar ideological norms and beliefs can be beneficial to advance the needs of provinces. 

To be sure, these are positive points for the Pallister government. However, the idea of Doug Ford as a strong ally for Manitoba is tempered by several realities. 

Different shades of conservatism

One of these realities is related to the fact that there are many different shades of conservatism, despite running under the same Progressive Conservative banner. As a result, we can't assume that Pallister and Ford will agree on issues. 

This is especially true given that Ford's primary responsibility is to represent the needs of Ontario first and foremost. Given its economic dominance within the Canadian federation, Ontario does not need Manitoba to wield power with the federal government.

Also, Ford's behaviour of questionable instincts and dubious statements, both in the lead-up to this election and in his experience as a municipal councillor, makes him a wild card who could easily abandon his allies at a moment's notice.

Perhaps the most glaring difference relates to the populist agenda that Ford ran on during the election.

While populism has arisen from time to time throughout history, the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the Brexit affair in Britain illustrate that this concept is becoming an increasingly important political trend.

Populism may not be popular in Manitoba

While populism can mean many different things, generally, populism involves a rejection of elites and special interests in favour of the common people.  

Some scholars argue that a populist agenda would not be well received in Manitoba.

One such scholar is Jared Wesley, associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta. In his book, Code Politics, which compares the political cultures of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, he concludes that Manitoba's political culture is largely one of moderation and pragmatism, not often straying too far to the political left or the political right. 

He concedes that some politicians, such as former PC premiers Gary Filmon and Walter Weir, have deviated from this political culture of moderation with an emphasis on rural conservatism.

Doug Ford's family and supporters joined in celebrating Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government on Thursday. Ford's populist agenda would will not likely work in Manitoba, says Karine Levasseur. (Jon Castell/CBC)

However, Wesley counter-argues that such deviations do not enjoy "prolonged success" in Manitoba when compared to the party leaders who emphasize moderation. (Weir was premier for less than two years, from 1967 to 1969. Filmon had more success, serving as premier from 1988 to 1999 — but still a shorter span than the NDP's following 17 years in power.)

Paul Thomas, arguably the leading public administration scholar in our province, similarly argues that, rightly or wrongly, Manitoba often strives for the middle ground, thereby allowing individualism and collectivism to flourish together

What does this mean for Pallister? Quite simply, he has a difficult balancing act ahead of him.

On the one hand, Ford presents a great opportunity to advance the needs of the provinces on issues of mutual interest to both Manitoba and Ontario. On the other, Pallister must tread carefully to avoid being seen as a supporter of Ford's populist agenda, which will not likely work in our province.

Pallister will likely exercise caution when working with Ford to prevent being painted with the same populist brush.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Karine Levasseur

Karine Levasseur is associate professor in the University of Manitoba's department of political studies. Her research interests include state-civil society relations. She is author of In the Name of Charity: Institutional support and resistance for redefining the meaning of charity in Canada, which won the J.E. Hodgetts Award for best article (English) published in Canadian Public Administration in 2012. She is also co-editor of Understanding the Manitoba Election 2016: Campaigns, Participation, Issues, Place.

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