PC “blue” sky over Manitoba

“Landslide” was among the words used in the newspaper to describe the election result, as was the statement, “electors of Manitoba give ... clean-cut mandate to carry out policy.”

Does this describe the results of the April 19 provincial election and the Tory  blue wave that swept across Manitoba?

Actually, not, although the wording is just as appropriate. The headlines above were used in the Winnipeg Free Press following the landslide victory of the Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris-led Liberals in the August 6, 1915, provincial election. And like the present Progressive Conservatives (PCs) under the leadership of Brian Pallister, the Liberals won 40 seats in the Manitoba Legislature.

That’s right, one has to go back 101 years to find a similar victory of such magnitude by a single political party in Manitoba. The only real differences are that today’s PCs won 40 out of Manitoba’s 57 seats up for grabs, while the Liberals in 1915 took 40 out of then 47 seats available.

In terms of popular vote, Norris’ party captured 55.1 per cent, while this time around the PCs claimed nearly 54 per cent of all the votes cast on April 19.

In 1915, the Conservatives were virtually wiped off the political map, capturing just five seats (the Social Democrats took one seat and an Independent candidate another) with 33 per cent of the popular vote.

In the just completed election, the NDP had just 25 per cent of the popular vote, and fell by 23 seats in the legislature to just 14 seats when compared to the 2011 provincial election, when they won a majority government.

The 1915 landslide victory by the Liberals came in the aftermath of the resignation of the Rodmond Roblin-led Tory government, resulting from a scandal involving kickbacks to the party during the construction of the Manitoba Legislative Building, which was then under construction.

There was no corruption scandal plaguing the government this time around, but there was a definite backlash against NDP Leader Greg Selinger for promising not to raise the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) in the 2011 election campaign and then rescinding this promise by upping the PST from seven per cent to eight per cent in 2013 to support infrastructure spending. Selinger never adequately made a convincing case to Manitobans for raising the PST, and then rejected the province’s balanced-budget legislation that called for a referendum on such tax changes. In the process, Selinger lost the trust of the people. Meanwhile, Pallister ran on a promise to roll-back the PST, which obviously resonated with Manitoba voters.

Similar to today’s PCs, the Norris Liberals campaigned on a promise to manage the province’s finances in a more business-like fashion. Pallister campaigned on a promise to “spend smarter,” and finding $50 million in savings from government operations.

Furthermore, Pallister noted Selinger’s failure to go to the people and the resulting backlash when he increased the PST, promising to uphold the public’s right to vote on any proposals by his government for a major tax increase. That’s good politics — a lesson learned from his opponent’s own experience.

That’s another reason for the NDP collapse on April 19 — they had lost the confidence of voters through their handling of the province’s finances. When first elected under Gary Doer in 1999, the NDP actually followed the policy of the previous PC government under Gary Filmon by continuing to accept balanced budgets as being expedient. The Selinger-era NDP became known more for its eagerness to spend and thus create deficits. To be fair, costs for drastic flooding in the province during the Selinger years dramatically affected Manitoba’s financial bottom line.

What also didn’t help the NDP was the division in the party ranks typified by the “gang of five.” Selinger may have retained his hold on the party, but he was crippled politically, which was reflected in the results on April 19. Still, it can be argued that the party’s own membership revolt contributed directly to the decimation of the NDP at the polls.

Pallister mentioned the revolt in the NDP ranks and the failed attempt to oust their leader, expressing sympathy for the “hurt” it inflicted on his opponent. In fact, Pallister was quite gracious in victory, saying how “humbled” he was by the mandate given by Manitoba voters.

To his credit, Selinger accepted responsibility for the NDP collapse and resigned as party leader during his concession speech. He said that in a democracy, “the people are always right.”

One thing Selinger was able to point out to his supporters was that the NDP will remain the official opposition in the legislature, although original aspirations for at least a minority Conservative government resulting from the April 19 vote were shattered.

This time around polls calling for a sweeping Tory victory were bang on, though the completeness of the blue wave in Manitoba may have been somewhat unexpected. The Conservatives were convinced they were on course for a majority government as shown by the polls, so Pallister handlers had him run a cautious campaign, avoiding too much public exposure, since he personally wasn’t all that popular among voters, according to polls.

Polls also noted the NDP’s downward slide, as well as that of the Liberals. The Liberals may have tripled their seat count in the legislature from one to three, but that was a drastic drop from expectations at the start of the election campaign, when polls often had the party standing at second place in popularity among voters. Yet, as the campaign progressed, it was evident that the honeymoon was over. Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari’s political inexperience began to emerge during the campaign and support for the party plummeted. She even lost in Fort Rouge, finishing in third place behind NDP victor Wab Kinew and Conservative candidate Audrey Gordon.

Unlike Selinger, who accepted the election results as a personal defeat, Bokhari didn’t indicate after the ballots were counted that she would resign as Liberal Party Leader.

Former Liberal Party Leader Jon Gerrard retained his River Heights seat, while newcomer Cindy Lamoureux took Burrows from incumbent NDP candidate Melanie Wright. Her success was helped by the name recognition, since she is the daughter of Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux.

Another Liberal surprise was that newcomer Judy Klassen defeated long-time NDP cabinet minister Eric Robinson in the northern riding of Kewatinook.

For Pallister and the Tories, there were many surprises, such as their success in NDP strongholds and in some cases displacing long-serving NDP cabinet ministers.

In turn, Pallister promised to cut his yet unnamed cabinet members by a third when compared to the defeated NDP government’s cabinet.

Whatever the case, there is now a PC “blue” sky over Manitoba, resulting from the extent of the landslide victory.