Manitoba Election: Campaign More Nasty Than Neighbourly In 'Friendly' Province

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WINNIPEG - The licence plates say Friendly Manitoba, but the province's election campaign has turned out to be anything but.

From accusations of hidden agendas to personal snipes at one leader's clothing, the campaign for Tuesday's election has become the most negative in recent memory. It's enough to turn off some potential voters completely.

"I don't want to vote for any of these guys," Lindsay Hamel, a 32-year-old personal trainer born and raised in Winnipeg, said Wednesday. Hamel said she cannot remember a campaign with a similar tone.

"It's negative and nasty and I don't want a leader that's constantly pointing fingers."

Hamel said she has two friends who are also thinking about whether to cast ballots next week.

Paul Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Manitoba, agrees this has been the most negative campaign in years.

"I think it partly reflects the competitive nature of this election contest, (and) I think it reflects broader trends in political campaigning, where the use of negative advertising has proven to be effective," Thomas said.

This year's election is the closest in more than a decade. The NDP swept into office in 1999 and added to their majorities in 2003 and 2007. This time, however, they are without Gary Doer, a popular premier who quit in 2009, and they are facing a stronger Progressive Conservative team.

Even before the campaign began, the NDP set out to define Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen as a man with a secret plan to privatize Crown corporations and gut health care. They pointed to his role as a policy adviser in the Tory government of Gary Filmon, who privatized Manitoba Telephone System in 1996 and cut health-care services in the face of reduced federal transfer payments.

The New Democrats have taken out ads that urge voters to "stop P.C. health cuts." They have sent out flyers with a picture of a fearful young girl on the cover with the text: "Can your family risk Hugh McFadyen and the P.C.s?"

There is also an NDP television ad which shows a McFadyen-like character in a job interview. After he leaves the room, members of the interview panel say they don't trust him. One says, in a sarcastic tone, "nice suit, though."

The Tories have also run negative ads. They accuse the NDP of being soft on crime and show a "get out of jail free" card similar to ones used in the board game Monopoly. The Tories have also accused Premier Greg Selinger of having a secret agenda to raise the provincial sales tax to nine per cent from seven.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard has run ads portraying the other two leaders as bickering children, but he hasn't entirely stayed above the fray. He sent out news releases recently which said Brian Sinclair, a Winnipeg man who died during a 34-hour wait for emergency room care in 2008, would be alive today if the Liberals had been in power.

Each leader has defended his campaign tactics by saying he is simply pointing out his opponents' records. But for Hamel, it's too much. She stopped paying attention to the campaign two weeks ago.

"I feel like every sort of campaign point that the leaders are trying to make are actually just de facto slamming the other person."

But while some voters may be turned off by negative campaigns, the tactic is usually successful, according to Thomas. Parties can face a backlash if their attacks get too personal or are over the top, but negativity works more often than not.

"(It's) about defining your opponent early on and then being consistent and disciplined with the message you present," he said.

"For a voting population that's very loosely attached to the political process, not paying attention most of the time, this seems to be the way in which the parties can reach out to them and say to them, 'Well, if you're worried about your future, you don't want to vote for the other guys because they represent a bleak future for you.'"