Manitoba election: 3 things to watch

NDP Leader Greg Selinger is trying to hold on as premier of Manitoba in a race that could alter the province's voice on the national scene.

Election bound to have implications outside of the province

Manitoba NDP Leader Greg Selinger is trying to lead his party to a fifth straight mandate amid low poll numbers and voter fatigue. (Camille Gris-Roy/CBC)

The race is on in Manitoba, as the governing NDP is trying to win a record fifth straight term.

After years of being held up as a model for New Democratic governments, Manitoba's NDP is facing an uphill battle.

Leader Greg Selinger is trying to hold on as premier, in the face of near record low poll numbers, anger over tax increases and rifts in his own party, as two resurgent opposition parties circle, intent on ending nearly 17 years of NDP rule.

In the middle of the country, where East meets West, a battle of conflicting visions, values and ideas is playing out that is bound to have consequences beyond the provincial borders.

Here are three things to watch in Manitoba's 41st general election.

Needing a win

After last fall's federal election, Conservatives and New Democrats across the country are licking their wounds from disappointing losses.
Manitoba PC Leader Brian Pallister is looking to get the Conservative movement a win in Manitoba. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Both are looking to Manitoba for a win, and out-of-province help has come in to assist each party in refining tactics and strategies.

Right now, it appears the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives are starting with the upper hand, after leading polls for the last two years.

A PC win would end a string of provincial and federal losses and provide a much-needed boost as the national Conservative leadership race gets underway.

"It's a way to start building the recovery of the party nationally," says Jaime Watt, a Conservative strategist who is not working on the Manitoba campaign. 

"A loss in Manitoba is not devastating, but a win is super helpful."

Watt expects Conservatives will use this campaign to test drive new messages and rebrand the movement as more positive and inclusive than portrayed in the federal election. 

For the NDP the stakes are higher.

Nine years of balanced budgets and consecutive electoral wins in Manitoba gave the New Democratic movement credibility that a socially progressive party could govern with financial responsibility.

"We don't see that many NDP governments pop up across the country, says University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas. 

"Now this seems to be a government destined to go down to defeat and perhaps a very serious political setback."

Right now the only places either Conservatives or New Democrats are in power are Saskatchewan and Alberta. Saskatchewan is also in an election.

Western alignment

If the government in Manitoba changes, so likely will its voice on the national stage.

While Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. have increasingly found common cause on economics, energy and, at times, the environment, Manitoba has remained a western outlier.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari says Manitoba needs closer to ties to the West. (CBC)

Selinger has often aligned himself more closely with Ontario's Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne than his western colleagues, including Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

Recently Manitoba joined Ontario's cap-and-trade carbon market. While generally supportive of western energy projects, including the Energy East pipeline, Selinger has stopped short of being a cheerleader.

Manitoba has also stayed out of the New West Partnership, a trade deal between B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan that reduces trade barriers, increases labour mobility and tries to cut procurement costs by bulk buying, particularly for prescription drugs.

Both the Manitoba PCs and Liberals have said they will bring Manitoba into the New West Partnership, tying Manitoba's economy closer to its western neighbours.

Positions on energy and the environment could follow, as a new premier may have interests more in line with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall or B.C. Premier Christy Clark. 

"I think that's one of the tests of leadership in any province now, which is how do premiers make alliances with other premiers?" says Watt.

"That's where power and influence will come from, not with Manitoba standing on its own."

Indigenous voice

With one of the fastest growing aboriginal populations in the country, the indigenous file will be one of the biggest sitting on the next Manitoba premier's desk after April 19.

Among the premiers, Selinger has been a leading voice on issues including murdered and missing indigenous women and reconciliation over residential schools.

His final piece of legislation could turn out to be a law committing Manitoba to recognize the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was also the first premier to apologize for the Sixties Scoop, a period when large numbers of indigenous children were placed for adoption.

Still, the NDP's overall record is far from stellar. Manitoba's child welfare system is in crisis, and nearly 90 per cent of children in foster care are indigenous.

The work ahead is daunting, and while each party in Manitoba is running a slate of indigenous candidates, it's not clear whether a new premier will be as vocal on indigenous issues.

To date the Manitoba PCs have said they will work on ending child poverty, which is a big issue for the indigenous community, but have said little on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the upcoming national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

The Manitoba Liberals, meanwhile, are backing the inquiry and have policies aimed at combating poverty in indigenous communities.   

Indigenous issues are prominent in Manitoba, but they resonate right across the country. 

Perhaps more than with any other issue, this is a file where Canada will be looking to Manitoba's next premier to lead.

About the Author

Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC National News based in Winnipeg.

With files from Angela Johnston