Can Manitoba's Liberal party become a real contender again?

As the Liberals in Manitoba get closer to choosing a new leader on Oct. 21, there is talk of a possible revival of a party that has not been a serious contender for power in three decades, writes professor emeritus Paul Thomas.

Liberal party once a 'powerful force' in Manitoba but has declined since late 1960s, says Paul Thomas

Dr. Jon Gerrard is one of three contenders to lead Manitoba's slim Liberal party. (Samuel Rancourt/CBC)

As the Liberals in Manitoba get closer to choosing a new leader on Oct. 21, there is talk of a possible revival of a party that has not been a serious contender for power in three decades.

If Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister's leadership and his government's policy agenda — especially budgetary restraint and rationalization of health services — remain controversial, there might well be an opening for the Liberals with centre-right voters.

Similarly, if criticism of new NDP Leader Wab Kinew continues and if voters remember the broken promises, fiscal mismanagement and infighting of the former New Democratic government under Greg Selinger, there might also be support for the Liberals from left-of-centre voters.

To assess the likelihood of a Liberal recovery, we have to understand the factors that led to the decline of the party and the obstacles it faces to becoming a serious contender again.

The Liberal party was once a powerful political force in Manitoba, governing in coalition with the Progressives for three decades beginning in the 1930s.

By the late 1960s, however, the party was beginning a slow downward spiral that saw it slip into a distant third place. The party hit rock bottom in the 1981 provincial election, when it captured just 6.7 per cent of the vote and elected no one.

Many interrelated factors contributed to the decline of the Liberals over the past five decades.

Crowded out

Always a centrist party, the Liberals presented a blurred image as they shifted in successive elections from centre-right to centre-left in their policy messages to voters. An urban-rural divide within the party (a problem for all Manitoba parties) contributed to tension within the party and made a consistent policy approach difficult.

Frequent leadership changes reflected and reinforced the party's problems. Since 1969, there have been 10 Liberal leaders, compared to eight for the PCs and just five for the NDP. Often, the image of the leader and the party become fused in the minds of voters, so the turnover of leaders has made it harder for Liberals to maintain voter support.

After the breakthrough NDP victory in 1969, politics in Manitoba become more polarized and the Liberals tended to get crowded out by the ideological rhetoric of left-right politics.

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Then, as the NDP adjusted to the realities of governing, it became more moderate and pragmatic in its messages and policies, especially after Gary Doer led them to power in 1999. His leadership appeal crossed all party lines.

The relationship between the provincial and federal wings of the Liberal party has been a mixed blessing.

Many voters do not distinguish between federal and provincial Liberals, so when Pierre Trudeau was a popular prime minister, provincial Liberals rode on his coattails. However, when he took unpopular actions, the backlash hurt the provincial party.

A party of southwest Winnipeg

Having a Liberal government in Ottawa also meant ambitious individuals would opt for a national political career. At the same time, the fact that patronage appointments to national bodies were available probably attracted talent and money that helped the provincial wing to survive during its years in the political wilderness.

More recently, changes to political finance laws forced an organizational separation of the two wings of the party, which means the provincial Liberals can no longer lean so heavily on the capabilities of the more successful national party.

The simple plurality electoral system that translates votes into seats also hurt the Liberals. That system tends to reward parties like the NDP that have concentrated territorial support, while parties like the Liberals, with more dispersed support, may get a fairly high proportion of the popular vote across the province but very few seats.

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35 years ago
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Sharon Carstairs leads her party from the political wilderness to an incredible 20 seats in the 1988 election.

Partly because of the system, but also because of its leadership and policy choices, the Liberal party became essentially a party of southwest Winnipeg.

The one occasion when a Liberal comeback seemed possible was in the 1988 election.

Comeback in sight: 1988 election

A surprise defeat of the budget of the NDP government, caused by the vote of a resentful government backbencher, led to a snap election and the resignation of Howard Pawley as party leader and premier.

At the time, the government was under attack for raising taxes and was entangled in scandals. Meanwhile, in Ottawa, there was a highly unpopular Conservative government led by Brian Mulroney.

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Sharon Carstairs, Liberal leader since 1984, had the political savvy and skills to capitalize on this opportunity. In the election, the Liberals captured 20 seats and became the official Opposition.

Success was short-lived, however. After the next election, in 1990, the party fell back to seven seats and lost the role of the official Opposition to Gary Doer and the NDP.

Since the 1995 election, the Liberals have never managed to elect four MLAs, the number required to obtain official party status in the legislature and the perks that come with that status.

In the 2011 election, they won just seven per cent of the vote and elected just one MLA. That was an opening for the party in the 2016 election, but with no campaign strategy, a weak leader and gimmicky policy announcements, the Liberals were kept to just three MLAs.

Cindy Lamoureux formally announced her bid to become the next leader of the Manitoba Liberals in April. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Meet the contenders

There are three contenders for the job of Liberal leader.

Dr. Jon Gerrard is a known commodity, having led the party for 15 years before resigning as leader after the 2011 election, in which he was the only Liberal elected.

Cindy Lamoureux is a freshman MLA, whose father, Kevin Lamoureux, is an MP and a former MLA.

The third candidate is Dougald Lamont, who crafted policy statements and managed campaigns before seeking the leadership back in 2013, when he finished a distant second.

If Liberals want a fresh start, they are likely to vote for one of the two younger candidates.

It is not clear how the candidates are doing in attracting delegates. Nor is it entirely clear how they will define the policy orientation of the party going forward. Most likely it will remain a centrist party with support mainly in Winnipeg.

Dougald Lamont is running for leadership of the Manitoba Liberal party again after finishing a distant second to Rana Bokhari in 2013. (CBC)

The party will remain handicapped by its recent political past. It will need policy ideas, candidates, active constituency organizations, money and greater organizational capacity at party headquarters.

The new leader will have to confront Pallister, who is experienced and often combative.

These are major hurdles to overcome. Rebuilding might begin for the 2020 election, but barring a major stroke of political luck, it will take several elections to accomplish.

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


Paul G. Thomas is a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba where he taught Canadian politics for over 40 years. Many decades ago, he developed his lifelong interest in intergovernmental affairs in his first job out of university as a policy analyst for federal-provincial relations in Manitoba's department of finance. He admires both Gary Doer and Brian Pallister.