Just weeks after the last provincial election campaign wrapped up, it might seem too soon to talk about the next one. But in the context of discontent in Manitoba’s farm country, it’s a topic worth considering.
The governing Progressive Conservatives benefited, as they typically do, from strong support in rural Manitoba. In fact, agro-Manitoba voted almost exclusively for the PCs, with just The Pas-Kameesak, standing out in the blaze orange of the NDP, amidst a sea of Tory blue, on the electoral map.
Contrast that with the 1999 Manitoba general election that brought Gary Doer to power. That year the results in rural Manitoba were more of a mixed bag. A good handful of constituencies outside the Perimeter Highway went NDP that time. Candidates won in the northwest, the southeast and in smaller urban centres like Brandon, where the NDP swept both seats. Added to the NDP support in the North and within Winnipeg, it was enough to put them over the top.
Here in Manitoba, despite its reputation as an urban party, the NDP path to power clearly runs through the countryside. It doesn’t have to sweep like the Progressive Conservatives, but it must capture at least some of these seats to move to the right of the Speaker in the provincial legislature.
Making that happen will mean finding ways to connect with rural Manitobans and prove they take rural concerns seriously.
That won’t be easy. Many rural Manitobans won’t instinctively feel a lot of common ground with a very urban rapper-turned CBC host-turned political leader. It’s not an impossible mission though. The last time the government changed to the NDP, enough rural Manitobans found a prison guard-turned public sector union leader-turned politician the better choice.
The biggest challenge for opposition parties without a solid rural base will be to meaningfully understand the challenges of rural Manitoba, and believably communicate that understanding.
They currently have only a very small handful of MLAs with any sort of agriculture background. But that’s not to say the official Opposition isn’t at least trying to connect with rural Manitoba.
As Alexis Stockford reports in our front-page story of the Nov. 21 issue of the Co-operator, NDP Leader Wab Kinew was in attendance recently at a Manitoba Beef Producers district meeting to hear producer concerns over Crown land lease changes. This is exactly what opposition leaders should be doing under our parliamentary democracy, showing up and listening at least as much as they talk.
The provincial Liberal party has taken notice too. Party Leader Dougald Lamont, along with MLA (and former party leader) John Gerrard met recently with producers in Crane River to talk about the issues. Following that Nov. 14 meeting attendees expressed satisfaction that the pair had taken the time to come out to talk to them in person.
To be clear, the job of the opposition parties in this case is easier than the sitting government. They can show up, listen sympathetically, and gain brownie points. The government, on the other hand, must either defend its unpopular policy or reverse course and make some changes.
But that doesn’t excuse the government from its obligation to meet directly with those affected by its policy changes. And here the Pallister government has been notably absent. Certainly there have been provincial civil servants attending the meetings and fielding the hard questions. But the appearance of an actual policy-maker, or even a senior civil servant has been rare.
One gets the impression the Pallister government knew the changes would be unpopular. The timing of its announcement of the new regulations on Sept. 27, just 17 days after its re-election campaign, is revealing. Is it because that rural base of support is so “safe” it doesn’t matter? Or is it a strategy of doing the unpopular early in the mandate in the hopes that the electorate’s memory is short?
It’s also interesting to see how the recent provincial cabinet shuffle played out. Past agriculture minister Ralph Eichler, an off-the-cuff speaker and blunt talker, was shifted out of the portfolio to head up the economic development file. His replacement, Blaine Pedersen, came over to the expanded agriculture portfolio from the Infrastructure Ministry.
Pedersen, it’s fair to say, is the polar opposite of the loquacious Eichler, taking a significantly more taciturn tack during his time in public office.
A group of his constituents, frustrated by an inability to meet on the topic of the Bipole III project, once famously took out a front-page advertisement in the local papers declaring him a missing person.
Whether this stonewalling strategy will work will only be clear the next time the province goes to the polls.