09/20/2011 11:57 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Manitoba New Democrats suggest Tories have hidden privatization agenda

WINNIPEG - It has become almost a daily mantra from NDP Premier Greg Selinger as he seeks re-election: the rival Progressive Conservatives will privatize Manitoba Hydro and put energy development at risk if they win Oct. 4.

Despite consistent denials from the Tories, Selinger has repeated the accusation throughout the campaign for the Oct. 4 provincial election. He warns that Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen has a secret plan to sell Crown assets.

For one political observer, the NDP strategy is similar to that used by the federal Conservatives, who portrayed former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as a foreign academic with a hidden agenda to raise taxes.

"That practice has now become common in election strategies and it's because it seems to work," said Paul Thomas, a veteran political science professor at the University of Manitoba.

"Negative ads — defining your political opponent and attributing a position to them — seems to connect with voters. It gets their attention."

Manitoba Tories have spent much of the campaign fending off the privatization accusation. McFadyen has consistently said he would keep Hydro public.

But the New Democrats point to his role as chief of staff to former premier Gary Filmon, who privatized Manitoba Telephone System in 1996 after promising not to. The NDP also point to McFadyen's online biography from a law firm he once worked at. It promoted McFadyen as having played a central role in the initial public offering of MTS shares.

It's enough to have Selinger stage entire campaign events around privatization.

On Tuesday, the NDP invited reporters to what was billed as a Selinger speech on "the future of Manitoba Hydro." What they got was a 10-minute Selinger attack on McFadyen in a room filled with 120 NDP members and union supporters.

"We can keep moving forward or we can turn back to the failed policies of cuts and privatization. I think the choice is clear."

The attacks on McFadyen and the Tories are fair game, Selinger said.

"You look at behaviour — what has actually been done in the past," Selinger said.

"They're still committed to privatization in spite of their protestations to the contrary. You can be a wolf in sheep's clothing, even in modern politics."

McFadyen says Selinger's campaign tactic is a diversion from other issues.

"Whether it's hallway medicine, whether it's crime and safety ... he wants to avoid those things by running a fear-and-smear campaign," the Tory leader said.

"That's what he's going to be remembered for after Oct. 4 and I'm starting to feel sorry for him."

But the tactic, which was launched months before the campaign officially began, has already created a perception of McFadyen in some voters' minds, Thomas said, much like Ignatieff's public image was shaped by the federal Conservatives.

"I spoke to someone who was at the centre of the Ignatieff campaign ... and they said that they knew that once he had been labelled in a certain way, defined in a certain way, it was almost impossible to break that image of him that was in voters' minds."

— With files from Chinta Puxley