Selinger defeat reduces NDP governments down to one — again

With the defeat of the Manitoba NDP government, New Democrats hold sway in just one province: Alberta. But far from a sign of the party's wider woes, it is par for the course for the NDP, and part of the political cycle that every party has experienced, writes Eric Grenier.

But Manitoba New Democrats' ouster signals more of a local, rather than a national, malaise

Power Panel: 3 NDP leaders out in less than 3 weeks

6 years ago
Duration 8:12
The Power Panel discusses the state of the NDP after a series of losses 8:12

With the defeat of Greg Selinger's Manitoba New Democrats on Tuesday, only one province in Canada is now governed by the NDP.

But the significance of this shouldn't be exaggerated. In fact, it is not at all unusual for the NDP to be holding power in only one provincial capital — indeed, the last time that happened was less than one year ago. 

After the defeat of the New Democrats in Nova Scotia in October 2013, the NDP held office in only one jurisdiction: Manitoba. At the time, Selinger was the lonely New Democrat at the premier's table, a state of affairs that did not change until Rachel Notley's NDP won the Alberta provincial election in May 2015. Now Notley will occupy the NDP's table of one.

Between the 2007 Saskatchewan provincial election and the 2009 election in Nova Scotia, then-Manitoba premier Gary Doer was the last New Democratic premier standing, too.

The last time the New Democrats held sway in more than two provinces was in 2001, when the NDP governed Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. It has been 26 years since the NDP governed no province whatsoever, just before Bob Rae won the Ontario provincial election in 1990.

Federal or local woes for the NDP?

"After four full majority mandates," federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, "change is not something that comes totally unexpectedly."

Nevertheless, Selinger's defeat caps off a rough month for the New Democrats. On April 4, the NDP put up disappointing numbers in Saskatchewan's election and lost its leader, Cam Broten, in the process. Then the federal party voted, in effect, to reject Mulcair and hold a leadership election at the party's convention in Edmonton.

But it would be a stretch to lay the blame for Selinger's defeat at the feet of the broader woes of the NDP. The New Democrats in Manitoba had been trailing in the polls for more than three years, and did not see any significant increase in popularity when the federal NDP was topping the polls nationwide. 

For the last three years, Selinger's approval rating averaged just 25 per cent, his disapproval averaging 64 per cent. Discontent with his government began with the increase of the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven, going against a promise Selinger had made in the previous election campaign. Things spiralled further into a caucus revolt that forced Selinger to fight to keep his job — something he only narrowly did in a leadership race in 2015.

In short, it is unlikely that anything the federal NDP could have done would have saved Selinger's government.

Part of the political cycle

In any case, New Democrats are not alone in having ebbs and flows in the success of their provincial cousins.

Between the elections in Quebec in 2012 and Nova Scotia in 2013, the Liberals only governed in Ontario and Prince Edward Island — excluding the right-of-centre B.C. Liberal government of Christy Clark. At the time, prior to Justin Trudeau taking over the federal party, the Liberals were languishing in third place in the polls and obituaries of a  Liberal Canada were being written.

Between 1999 and 2001, the only province the Liberals governed was Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Conservative side of the equation is more muddied, as there are no affiliations with the federal party, and conservative parties without the word "conservative" in their name exist in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec. But after the defeat of the PCs in Newfoundland and Labrador last year, no party with that moniker was in power anywhere.

Dim prospects for NDP going forward

The NDP's best chance of forming government in another province is in the next one scheduled to go to the polls: British Columbia. The B.C. Liberals have been in power since 2001 and were trailing the NDP in the most recent public opinion survey — but that poll was conducted five months ago and Clark has a history of defying the polls.

After that, however, things may only get more difficult for the New Democrats. The party is currently in third place in the polls in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and are in fourth place behind the Greens in Prince Edward Island.

Re-election for Notley in Alberta in 2019 might be tough, especially if the conservative parties unite, and the NDP has some mountains to climb in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which won't be voting again until 2020 anyway. The NDP is a party in name-only at the provincial level in Quebec.

Notley may find herself alone at the premier's table for some time to come.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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