Over the coming months Manitobans have not one, but two elections in front of them.
Sept. 10 the province goes to the polls, and the federal election is scheduled for October 21 under the fixed-date election law.
Most of us are probably bracing ourselves for some pretty nasty campaigning, as the tone of politics has hardened in recent years. Canadians might like to think we’re a bit kinder and gentler than the U.S., but we appear to be readily adopting some of its unpleasant and more partisan ways.
A bit of nastiness has always been part of partisan politics. For example, there’s the very careful selection of the least-flattering-possible photo option of the opposing party’s leader for campaign literature, a dark art on full display in this year’s Manitoba campaign.
In PC campaign literature NDP Leader Wab Kinew, shot from below, features a bulbous head, obvious double chin and slightly bleary eyes. Not to be outdone, the NDP literature likewise features a pursed-lip, pained expressioned Brian Pallister, who leaves the overall impression that the photo was taken at the exact moment someone ‘pantsed’ him in public.
But these days the real game is attack ads, social media manipulation and a quiet parade of half-truths and cherry-picked facts presented as the gospel. Already social media feeds are filling with this.
At least in the quaint ‘olden days’ of the 1990s, before the internet gained traction and we were limited to talking politics in the coffee shops and around the water cooler, we had to speak face to face with those we didn’t agree with. That enforced at least some level of civility, rather than the current black-or-white views with no nuance or self-reflection.
That was good, because elections can’t just be about getting the ‘right’ party voted in. They’re about getting the right policies on the agenda, and that’s being lost in this new environment. When we’re all paying more attention to name-calling than policy discussions, it cheapens our democracy.
Rural Manitobans have their own peculiar challenges when it comes to provincial politics. Many live in what are known colloquially as ‘yellow dog’ ridings, where one party has such a strong hold on the seat they could run a yellow dog and still win. But does that mean these residents should tune out?
If anything it probably means they should pay more attention. After all if their votes are viewed as a foregone conclusion, how much attention is really going to be paid to the wants and needs of rural Manitobans? When it comes to public policy, attention frequently equals action.
There are clearly issues out there that have a big impact on the quality of life and economic fortunes of rural Manitobans. Health care is always going to be a challenge as services centralize. So will education and employment opportunities. For farmers there’s the difficult and expensive question of their fast-rising proportion of the province’s education tax bill.
These are real and important issues and if you don’t insist your local representatives take them seriously, who will? How can you make sure issues important to farmers and agriculture are on the government radar?
Manitoba’s population patterns add to this challenge. Regardless who forms government, elections here are won and lost within Winnipeg, with its large population. Of 57 MLAs who sit in the provincial legislature, 32 represent constituencies within the Perimeter Highway. Just 25 MLAs represent the rest of the province.
This means it’s just as important to get urban voters and representatives to understand your issues, and to understand that they affect them too. It’s a question of careful positioning and concerted effort.
A good example of this is ecological goods and services from farmland, where certain beneficial practices on farmland have a positive effect that goes far beyond the farm gate. The ALUS (Alternative Land Use Service) model was a made-in-Manitoba concept that was conceived nearly two decades ago. Since then the concept has spread to Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
It pays farmers to do things that might cost them a bit more, but gives society a better outcome. These kinds of partnerships can work, but they will have to be driven by rural Manitobans.
To make them happen you’ll need to take the opportunity that is an election to make sure your local representatives and other candidates understand your issues. Don’t assume they already do.
Make sure every eligible voter in your household not only votes, but also engages with candidates. Suggest policies to candidates. Make sure they understand how policies actually play out in the field.
We’re lucky to have these regular opportunities to set the course of government. In many places they don’t exist.