Former MP worries about Manitoba Liberals' future

A former Liberal MP from Manitoba says he fears the provincial Liberals may be largely ignored in the Oct. 4 election.

Liberal wipeout?

10 years ago
Recent Manitoba election polls have some wondering if the Liberals could be erased from the province's political map on Oct. 4. 1:37

A former Liberal MP from Manitoba says he fears the provincial Liberals may end up being largely ignored in the Oct. 4 election.

Ray Simard, who held the federal riding of St. Boniface from 2002 until 2008, said he now worries that Manitoba voters might have forgotten about the provincial Liberal Party.

"There's no doubt there's a certain polarization going on right now within the population [as to] whether or not they're going to vote NDP or Conservative, after 12 years of NDP government," Simard told CBC News on Tuesday.

Simard still thinks that Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard will hold onto his River Heights constituency, but recognized this election campaign's challenges.

"I believe Jon Gerrard is probably in for one of the toughest elections he's had," Simard said.

"With people … wanting either the NDP or the Conservatives in power, Jon is a bit stuck in the middle there. But again, he's a combatant and I'm very, very confident that he'll pull it through."

Gerrard faces dual challenge

Manitoba's Liberals have long struggled to be noticed and have seen their already-low numbers sink.

Their share of popular support has slipped slightly in each of the last three elections under Gerrard, who held the party's lone seat when the election was called.

In 2007, the Liberals garnered 12 per cent of the vote and two of the legislature's 57 seats.

Some political observers have said Gerrard's challenge is not only to keep his party afloat, but to keep his own seat in the legislature as well.

"This is not a good time for Mr. Gerrard, and so they must hope that there's some pockets of Liberal support where they need it in places like River Heights, obviously, where he has to be returned as the MLA," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba.

Candidate backtracks on remarks

Meanwhile, one of Gerrard's own candidates backtracked on remarks he made on Tuesday about the leader's future.

Harry Wolbert, the Liberal candidate in Winnipeg's St. Vital district, had told The Canadian Press that Gerrard bears some blame for the party's struggles.

"I guess ultimate responsibility rests with the leader. There are some within the party, within the public, who don't like the leader," he said in an interview.

Wolbert did not take a position on Gerrard's future as leader, but he said some want him gone.

"The writing may be on the wall. That's for Jon to decide and … we have to have a leadership review after every election, so Jon and the members will decide at that time," he said.

But later on Tuesday, Wolbert told CBC News that "all candidates do support Jon."

Liberal Party officials said Wolbert felt he was misquoted, as he had meant to say people who already plan to vote NDP or PC were telling him they think it was time for Gerrard to go.

Wolbert has openly expressed concern about the possibility that the Liberals could be erased from Manitoba's political landscape on Oct. 4.

"Time for MB Liberals and their supporters to step up to the plate, especially if we don't want to see ourselves wiped off the political map," Wolbert posted on Twitter on Monday.

"Yeah, the latest polling numbers did give me some concern, so I was basically rallying the troops and Liberal Party supporters to get out there and help out," he later told CBC News.

Positive outlook

Gerrard has dismissed the gloomy outlook and unfavourable election polls. He has talked about possibly holding the balance of power with a handful of seats in a minority government.

"We don't believe the polls and certainly what we've been getting at the door … is actually a very positive response. And our own internal polling suggests we are doing far better than some of the other polls are suggesting," he told The Canadian Press.

"The real poll is on election day and that's the one we're building towards."

Gerrard, a trained pediatrician who turns 65 next month, has led the provincial Liberals since 1998. Prior to that, he served one term in the federal Liberal government under Jean Chretien between 1993 and 1997, when he lost a bid for re-election.

In the 13 years Gerrard has led the Liberals, they've never drawn much more than about 13 per cent of the popular vote.

The party actually won two seats in the last election, but Gerrard's  longtime partner in the legislature, Kevin Lamoureux, stepped down last year to run federally. He is now the MP for Winnipeg North and his provincial seat of Inkster, vacant since he left, is up for grabs.

In the last decade or so, the Liberals have enjoyed brief bursts of popularity in Manitoba polls, but never when it counts at election time.

The closest they have come in the last few decades is when Sharon Carstairs formed the official Opposition in 1988. That lasted for two years until the next election.

With files from The Canadian Press