It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise that Manitoba’s governing New Democrats recently released an attack campaign on Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives. The website (pallisterpcs.ca) and the leaflets, which were mailed throughout the province, presents much of the same rhetoric the NDP has been using against the PCs for nearly a decade.
“In the 1990s, Brian Pallister and the PCs: laid off 700 teachers, fired 1,000 nurses, sold-off the Manitoba Telephone System, after promising not to, cut funding 5 times for critical infrastructure like roads and bridges.”
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The NDP has repeated these lines so often they’ve basically been accepted as fact, and why not? The PC Party has never adequately communicated otherwise. Whether or not there is truth to the statements, we may as well treat them as reality. The same attacks were used effectively against former PC leader Hugh McFadyen in both 2007 and 2011. Ultimately McFadyen, who served as Principal Secretary to former PC Premier Gary Filmon, conceded “(That) government pursued a balanced budget objective, but I think may have lost sight of some of the social programs that were important to people in that process, I think we need to approach it in a more balanced way this time.” The new “balanced” PC Party still wasn’t able to get itself elected.
It’s not exactly creative but if the same lines have worked well in the past why expect them to change the attack now? Particularly when facing a new PC leader with even deeper ties to the Filmon government. Before Pallister was acclaimed as leader many Tories were envisioning the attacks Pallister would face from the NDP. “If they were able to go after Hugh for being a staffer under Filmon imagine what they’ll do with Pallister” was a fairly prominent thought amongst those weighing the potential new leader’s electoral chances. Using near identical talking points from two previous elections does run its risks, though. The federal Liberal “hidden agenda” attacks on Stephen Harper only found some success in 2004 and had fallen flat by 2006. It will be up to Pallister to counter the attacks, while not letting them control his own message, something his predecessor was never able to do.
The attacks were released around the same time that a poll from Probe Research was released saying the NDP are at a staggeringly low 28% support compared to 46% for the Tories. The attacks are one of the best tools at the NDPs disposal as they try to weather the incredibly unpopular PST increase. Some have accused the NDP of being scared that their grip on power may finally be escaping them. Well, of course they are. The NDP is in completely uncharted territory. They have been in government for 14 years, have returned the province to structural deficits, and are blatantly breaking re-election promises. There are also symbolic signs that things aren’t going so smooth in the province. Saskatchewan, the province Manitobans always used to look down on is now looked at with envy as many Manitobans are moving there presumably for its lower taxes and greater economic opportunity.
With all of this going against the government it’s no wonder they’re on the attack. Just a couple months ago Christy Clark and her BC Liberal party looked poised to lose government. Many of the brightest political commentators had all but written off the party’s chances of re-election. The BC Liberals went on the attack, with one of the most damaging ads targeting, you guessed it, the record of the BC New Democrats from the 1990s. These attacks may not be pretty, they won’t make anyone less cynical, but they do have a habit of working.
Of course every province is different so I hesitate to say what happens in any given province foreshadows what will happen in Manitoba, but it is worth examining. Along with Manitoba in 2011, Ontario, Alberta and BC saw seemingly well-positioned opposition parties defeated primarily because the governing parties were able to convince voters that a change wasn’t worth the risk. Quite clearly this will be the strongest argument the NDP will have against the PCs.
We’re still looking at possibly almost three years until the next Manitoba provincial election. This gives the NDP plenty of time to tinker with its message and also gives Pallister and the PCs enough time to convince voters that they’re not the boogey-man they’re portrayed as. There’s even potential for a new Liberal leader to position that party as an alternative. One thing is for sure, barring some kind of miraculous turnaround for the NDP, their best hope is to convince voters that they’re the least worst option on the ballot.
Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae