Premier Selinger's NDP has fended off the opposition to win a majority government in what will be remembered as one of the nastiest campaigns the province has seen. The Tories only manged to win five of the 31 seats in Winnipeg. Liberal leader Jon Gerrard held onto his seat, and will continue to be the lone Liberal in the legislature.
The campaign was dominated largely by sensationalized attacks between the NDP and PCs, while the Liberals largely evaded public notice. Instead of offering a substantive vision, the two front runners stuck to boutique policies aimed at winning over particular demographic groups. Someone who was out of the province during the campaign would find it virtually impossible to determine which platform belonged to which party. The New Democrats pledged to get tough on crime, and the PCs promised to outspend the NDP. With each party trying to outflank the other on the opposite side of the political spectrum, there was no clear vision for voters to choose from. In an uncertain policy environment, voters default to the status quo.
The one issue that clearly differentiated the PCs from the NDP was their opposition to the NDP plan to divert a planned electricity transmission line around the west side of Lake Winnipeg in order to avoid building through "pristine Boreal forest." The decision will add roughly a billion dollars to the project, PC candidate McFadyen claimed. However, that one issue simply wasn't enough to motivate Manitobans to vote for a change.
In Manitoba, as in the rest of the world, the economy weighs heavily on voters minds. The Tories had an opportunity to offer an alternative to the high tax, transfer payment dependent model of the NDP. Instead, they railed against the "reckless" NDP plan to balance the budget by 2014, and instead pledged to do so by 2018. With voters conscious of the chaos caused by out of control public debt in Europe and the United States, it is hard to imagine that they would consider a party pledging to prolong deficits fiscally responsible. Whether or not the NDP deficit reduction plan is manageable, failing to offer an alternative deficit reduction plan along the same timeline was a missed opportunity for the Tories.
Rather than attacking the substance of the PC platform, the NDP focused on attacking the record of the last PC government, in which McFadyen was a senior advisor. McFadyen, in turn, spent the entire campaign distancing himself from the previous PC government. But spending the whole campaign denying that he would deviate significantly from the current government begged the question of why he even wanted to be premier in the first place. The absence of a clear vision from McFadyen made it easier for voters to buy into the NDP narrative. This reinforced the notion that McFadyen was too much of a risk.
This election serves as an interesting test case for the recent trend towards parties using micro-targeted policies aimed at winning over specific demographic groups. This approach, pioneered by the federal Tories, doesn't appear to have done anything to bolster McFadyen's fortunes. It is unlikely that more than a handful of voters thought about child care benefits or sports tax credits when entering the ballot box.
Strategists will no doubt be left wondering just how effective these measures are. Even if these targeted policies do sway a few voters, they aren't enough on their own to win an election. By failing to present a clear vision, the PC party has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org).