When the NDP government dropped the news that it was increasing the provincial sales tax from 7 per cent to 8 per cent, for the first time in over a decade, momentum quickly started moving against the NDP and Manitobans have started to seriously believe we may be due for a change of government. The Official Opposition PC Party obviously has the most to gain from a collapse in NDP support but where does it leave Manitoba’s third party, the Liberals?
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The Manitoba Liberals were a fairly major player in provincial politics under Sharon Carstairs. The party surged to 20 seats with 36 per cent of the popular vote in 1988. Carstairs even became a national figure when she strongly opposed the Meech Lake Accords as the Leader of the Official Opposition in a PC minority government. While the party lost a lot of ground in 1990, the Liberals kept 7 seats and 28 per cent of the popular vote. After Carstairs vacated the leadership, the party was still able to keep 3 seats and a respectable 24 per cent of the popular vote under Paul Edwards.
Gary Doer’s ability to moderate the NDP largely shut out the Liberals and made the NDP the default choice for progressive voters and the Liberals have been slowly declining ever since, now holding just the one seat in the legislature and picking up a meagre per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 election. With Doer out of the picture and his successor, Greg Selinger, overseeing some of the largest tax increases the province has ever seen, showing a disregard for balanced budget legislation, which Doer frequently praised, and taxing at one of the lowest income levels in the country, even progressives might be looking for an alternative from the NDP. The current state of the province has similarities to the 1980s when the New Democrats, under Howard Pawley, became increasingly unpopular and NDP stumbles led to Carstairs’ success in the 1988 election.
The question is whether or not the Liberals can find another Sharon Carstairs. To say the performance of current leader, Jon Gerrard, has been lackluster would be an understatement. The man has never struck a chord with Manitobans. It would be hard for any leader to stand out against the charismatic Gary Doer, but against the very unexciting Selinger the party continued to lose ground. The Liberals were largely written off before the 2011 election started and Gerrard spent much of it defending his own seat against a strong PC challenger.
The decline of the federal Liberal party has also been damaging to their provincial counterparts as there are no longer any patronage appointments to be given to loyal workers or even the ability for volunteers to experience a winning campaign.
Jon Gerrard’s decision to vacate the party’s leadership should have been welcome news to Liberals and frankly anyone who would doesn’t like the idea of a two-party system. The party will be electing their new leader in October. The position isn’t the most attractive in politics. Unless the party starts raising enough money to offer the leader a salary the job will have no income. If Gerrard were to vacate his River Heights seat to allow his successor a seat in the house, the new leader can count on the Tories working hard against him or her to reclaim the constituency they’ve held many times since 1958.
The next leader will need to bank on excitement for Trudeaumania 2.0 to translate into momentum for the Liberal brand within Manitoba. The new Manitoban leader will need harness that excitement while pushing the NDP hard on their record on poverty and the state of Manitoba’s child welfare system, topics of which traditional NDP voters identify, while presenting themselves as a fiscally responsible alternative to voters who may be unsure about switching their vote to the PC Party.
With the selection of a new leader and the possibility of facing an unpopular government in the next election this may be the last chance the Manitoba Liberals have to once again becoming a player in Manitoba politics. If the Liberals can’t do it this time, they may as well shutter the doors.
Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae