POLITICS

Manitoba's new Opposition leader wins byelection for legislature seat

09/04/2012 09:40 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba's new Opposition leader now has a seat in the legislature.

Brian Pallister handily won a byelection Tuesday in the Fort Whyte constituency in southwest Winnipeg, taking more than 50 per cent of the vote in the longtime Progressive Conservative stronghold.

"Tomorrow morning, I will represent everyone in Fort Whyte to the best of my ability as if they were a supporter," Pallister told volunteers at his campaign headquarters.

"And we will in that manner make all of Manitoba understand, when we take that approach riding to riding across this great province, that we deserve to govern this province."

Pallister also said his party would be one of "openness and honesty and integrity" before ending his speech without answering reporters' questions. He later told one reporter to wait until a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Pallister has maintained a low profile for a party leader. Because no one ran against him for the PC helm — he won by acclamation in July — he never had to debate any other candidates. After becoming leader, he talked to supporters about making Manitoba a "have" province, but did not offer specifics.

Pallister took over the leadership from Hugh McFadyen, who announced his resignation after a disappointing performance in last year's provincial election.

Pallister's past political experience includes a stint as a provincial cabinet minister in the 1990s and time as a member of Parliament for the Canadian Alliance and the Conservatives. The Fort Whyte seat has solidly Tory — the party has won more than 50 per cent of the vote in every election since the constituency was created in 1999.

While Pallister's victory came as no surprise, a surge by the Liberals defied expectations. Liberal candidate Bob Axworthy, a brother of former federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy and the only candidate who lives in Fort Whyte, finished second with 33 per cent of the vote. With all but one of 54 polls reporting, Pallister had 2,897 votes to Axworthy's 1,854. The Liberals ran a distant third in Fort Whyte in the last two provincial elections.

Axworthy's gain came at the expense of the governing NDP, which captured 30 per cent of the Fort Whyte vote in the last two general elections. Tuesday night, NDP candidate Brandy Schmidt garnered only 11 per cent of the vote. Schmidt works for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada as manager of community engagement.

The Green Party's Donnie Benham received little more than 100 votes as the last ballots were being counted, and independent candidate Darrell Ackman, who is facing child pornography charges, garnered less than two dozen votes.

The victory means Pallister will get to sit across from Premier Greg Selinger in the legislature chamber and challenge the premier in question period, instead of sitting in the public gallery.

The byelection win does not affect the governing New Democrats' strong majority. The NDP currently has 37 of the 57 legislature seats. Pallister's win means the Tories maintain the 19 they had in last year's election. The Liberals have one seat.

Pallister will now be tasked with rebuilding the Tories — who have not held office since 1999 — for the next election, expected in 2016. The Tories have watched their support slide in Winnipeg, where they now hold just four of 31 seats. The party's strongholds are now primarily in smaller cities and towns in the southern part of the province.

A former financial consultant who once chaired the House of Commons finance committee, Pallister has a reputation as something of a fiscal hawk. On his web site, he touts the fact he cut 3,000 pages of statutory regulations when he was the provincial government services minister.

Much of the local media attention in the race was centered on Ackman, who is out on bail after being charged earlier this summer with living off the avails of prostitution, sexual assault, sexual interference, possessing child pornography and other offences.

Ackman posts videos on the Internet under the name of MrJetzTV, although he has no affiliation with the Winnipeg Jets, and often films himself talking about wanting to party or complaining about having been kicked out of hotels or other establishments.

His candidacy raised concerns from some about whether people accused of sex crimes should be allowed to run for office. The Manitoba Elections Act only prohibits people who are serving time in jail or convicted of certain offences under the elections law.