POLITICS

Manitoba Tories plot ground war, but face internal strife: sources

12/02/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 02/01/2013 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - As Manitoba's new Opposition leader, Brian Pallister has an aggressive battle plan to attract new supporters and re-engage Progressive Conservatives turned off by last year's election loss.

But a walkout by some longtime supporters has raised questions about whether the party has enough volunteers to pull it off.

The Tories launched an internal project called "Blue Blitz" in September, five weeks after Pallister won the party leadership unopposed. The aim was to have volunteers drop pamphlets in every mailbox in 20 constituencies, 19 of which are currently held by the NDP and Liberals, according to an email obtained by The Canadian Press.

"These are all key seats that the P.C. party needs to win in the next election — and it’s never too early to start defining our party and core values," reads the email sent by Lauren Stone, a Tory researcher, to caucus members and volunteers.

"We would like to have as many as possible done before the (annual general meeting) in October."

The targeted NDP ridings include many in suburban Winnipeg that used to vote Tory, as well as Brandon East and Interlake, which are longtime NDP strongholds.

So far, only seven constituencies have been blitzed, Pallister said, and any delay has been due to the weather.

"Unfortunately, winter came early. No, we're not behind schedule but we are developing and refining a schedule to begin in the spring and we will be going hard in the spring," Pallister said in an interview Thursday.

However, two party sources say members at the party's annual general meeting were told the blitz was to continue into December, but there was a shortage of volunteers. The meeting was closed to the media.

"The report that was given at the AGM was that it had fallen abysmally below target," said one veteran party volunteer.

"There's no other way to sugar-coat it. They did not have enough people to do it."

The Tories have been trying to rebuild since the party failed to win any extra seats in the 2011 election. It captured 44 per cent of the popular vote, but low support in Winnipeg meant it got no more than 19 of the 57 legislature seats.

The loss prompted the resignation of then-leader Hugh McFadyen and angered some grassroots members who felt the party had ignored their input. Many were shocked when the party veered left on its fiscal platform and said a Tory government would run deficits until 2018.

Last June, as it became clear to Pallister that he would win the party leadership unopposed, he invited a dozen party members to a meeting in Portage la Prairie to be interviewed for staff jobs.

What happened next, say two sources who were in the room, was something akin to a television reality show. The names of people in the room were put into a hat. As their names were drawn, they were assigned a constituency held by the NDP or Liberals, and told to sell memberships in that area as part of a contest to see who could sell the most.

"I thought it was completely disrespectful," one volunteer said.

The sources said — and Pallister confirmed — that people who didn't like the contest were told they could leave. About half of them walked out.

"I basically have to have people who are willing to do the work — not talk about doing the work, not get others to do the work — they have to be willing to do the actual work," Pallister said.

"For those who chose to walk out, it's their choice. And of course, they're welcome back any time. They won't be in senior roles or leadership roles unless and until they demonstrate that they're willing to do the work necessary to grow this party."

Shortly after Pallister became leader, he shuffled every one of his caucus members' critic responsibilities. The move was meant to broaden each member's skill set, he said, and to help rural members understand urban issues and vice-versa.

Pallister admits to demanding hard work from fellow Tories.

"Sometimes I drive people too hard and, you know, I have to apologize for that. But the reality is, I ask a lot of myself, and I expect a lot from the people I work with too."

Pallister has set out an ambitious strategy to try to unseat the New Democrats, who have been in power since 1999. His predecessors, McFadyen and Stuart Murray, failed to put a dent in the NDP's solid majority.

The former provincial cabinet minister and member of Parliament has assigned every caucus member one constituency to target as part of the Blue Blitz.

He has also sent out questionnaires to party members, asking them for ideas on how to improve the party's organization and policy-making. Pallister and others are also touring the province and holding meetings to develop new policies. He feels allowing members to shape the party will get them engaged and motivated well in advance of the next election, expected in 2016.

"The problem has been, I think in part, that we engage a little late ... which makes it harder to get your new ideas out there and get people the time they need to discuss them, embrace them and feel like they're their ideas."