POLITICS
10/02/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Positive economy, negative ads may push NDP to fourth term in Manitoba

WINNIPEG - Just seven months ago, it seemed Manitoba New Democrats were headed to the end of 12 years in government.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives had jumped well ahead in opinion polls. Premier Greg Selinger, who took over the premier's office in the fall of 2009, was still working on his public-speaking skills, trying to connect with the voters and fending off attacks on the province's high crime rate and health-care waits.

With a fixed election date of Oct. 4 looming, NDP members had reason to worry.

Things have turned around dramatically. Two polls in recent weeks suggest the NDP has the lead in the run-up to Tuesday's provincial election and is on the verge of winning a fourth consecutive majority government — a rare feat in Canadian politics.

The reason, according to analysts, is a combination of a positive economy and negative advertising, the latter aimed squarely at Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen.

"During the winter, we saw the NDP launch ... a whole series of advertisements called: 'Who is Hugh McFadyen?'" said Christopher Adams, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg and vice-president of polling firm Probe Research.

"This has put McFadyen on his heels."

The ads, which have become more frequent since the election campaign began, accused McFadyen of having a secret agenda to privatize Crown corporations such as Manitoba Hydro and parts of the health-care system. They pointed to his work as a policy adviser to former premier Gary Filmon, who sold off the province's phone company, and portrayed McFadyen as a dangerous risk.

The NDP's union supporters joined the fray as well. The Canadian Union of Public Employees took out ads demanding that the provincial utility be kept public. The Manitoba Nurses Union ran ads warning of a return to the 1990s — a time when the Tories were in power and cut health services.

The ads were so effective McFadyen spent much of the election campaign denying the accusations. He took out his own full-page newspaper ad saying he would not privatize Crown bodies or health-care services.

Somehow, a privatization plan that no one was promising became one of the key issues in the campaign.

To Adams, the NDP ads were similar to the way the federal Conservatives attacked former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

"It's kind of interesting to see a left-of-centre party bait a right-of-centre party for once. Usually, it's the other way around," he said.

Joan Grace, another political science professor at the University of Winnipeg, agrees.

"Negative ads work. I mean, they have to be subtle, and I think they've been subtle enough for them to work."

The attacks continued during the four-week election campaign. The NDP war room was quick to jump on any privatization denial by McFadyen with rebuttals based on the former Tory government's actions more than a decade ago. They also pointed to McFadyen's resume, posted online at his former law firm, which boasts of him playing a key role in the reforms of the 1990s.

The media bit more often than not, so the privatization issue received almost daily attention.

But there's been another factor at play. While most of North America has struggled with a continued economic slowdown, Manitoba has continued its slow but steady growth. The provincial economy never booms, but it never busts either.

With a low unemployment rate, a solid housing market and new government-backed mega-projects on the go, the NDP pushed the theme that life in the province is good.

Then, in May, came the kind of good news any politician would love. The National Hockey League announced its return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. The Jets would play in a modern downtown arena the NDP had helped fund over protests from the opposition.

As thousands of fans cheered the announcement, Selinger strode alongside team owners and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for a photo that was splashed across newspaper front pages.

Voters, at least inside Winnipeg, do not appear to be itching to throw out the NDP, Adams said.

Outside the capital, however, severe flooding and a hard year in farm country appear to have soured the party's chances of maintaining all its rural seats. A Probe Research poll released Friday suggested NDP support in rural areas has dropped and the Tories have a sizable lead.

But Winnipeg is the key to victory in any election — 31 of the 57 legislature seats are inside the city. The Probe poll suggested the NDP has 53 per cent support in the capital to 35 per cent for the Tories.

The NDP has also worked on Selinger's public persona. Known as a quiet policy wonk during his decade as finance minister, he has learned to speak more forcefully and has sharpened his debating skills. His responses to media questions used to involve lengthy policy analysis, but are now closer to sound bites that get his point across quickly.

Still, Selinger is not taking anything for granted and said the race will come down to which party gets its voters to the polls.

"We always take the attitude, and I take the attitude, you're two votes behind and you have to work right up until when the polls close."

McFadyen said he doesn't believe those who say the NDP is on the cusp of victory.

"Our feedback right now is that we are gaining and we've had seven straight days of growth since the (Sept. 23 leaders) debate and we are feeling great about where we are in this campaign," he said Friday.

Tuesday's election could wipe the provincial Liberals from the electoral map. The party has always struggled, but won two seats in 2007 by receiving 12 per cent of the popular vote.

Recent polls suggest that support has dropped below 10 per cent. Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard has spent much of the campaign door-knocking in his own constituency.