Just seven months ago, it seemed Manitoba New Democrats were headed to the end of 12 years in government.
The Opposition Progressive Conservatives had jumped well ahead in opinion polls. Premier Greg Selinger, who took over the premier’s office in the fall of 2009, was still working on his public-speaking skills, trying to connect with the voters and fending off attacks on the province’s high crime rate and health-care waits.
With a fixed election date of Oct. 4 looming, NDP members had reason to worry.
But things have turned around dramatically. Two polls in recent weeks suggest the NDP has the lead in the run-up to Tuesday’s provincial election and is on the verge of winning a fourth consecutive majority government – a rare feat in Canadian politics.
The reason, according to analysts, is a combination of a positive economy and negative advertising, the latter aimed squarely at Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen.
“During the winter, we saw the NDP launch … a whole series of advertisements called: ‘Who is Hugh McFadyen?’” said Christopher Adams, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg and vice-president of polling firm Probe Research.
“This has put McFadyen on his heels.”
The ads, which have become more frequent since the election campaign began, accused Mr. McFadyen of having a secret agenda to privatize Crown corporations such as Manitoba Hydro and parts of the health-care system. They pointed to his work as a policy adviser to former premier Gary Filmon, who sold off the province’s phone company, and portrayed Mr. McFadyen as a dangerous risk.
The NDP’s union supporters joined the fray as well. The Canadian Union of Public Employees took out ads demanding that the provincial utility be kept public. The Manitoba Nurses Union ran ads warning of a return to the 1990s – a time when the Tories were in power and cut health services.
The ads were so effective Mr. McFadyen spent much of the election campaign denying the accusations. He took out his own full-page newspaper ad saying he would not privatize Crown bodies or health-care services.
To Prof. Adams, the NDP ads were similar to the way the federal Conservatives attacked former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
“It’s kind of interesting to see a left-of-centre party bait a right-of-centre party for once. Usually, it’s the other way around,” he said.
The attacks continued during the four-week election campaign. The NDP war room was quick to point to Mr. McFadyen’s resumé, posted online at his former law firm, which boasts of him playing a key role in the reforms of the 1990s.
But there’s been another factor at play. While most of North America has struggled with a continued economic slowdown, Manitoba has continued its slow but steady growth.
With a low unemployment rate, a solid housing market and new government-backed mega-projects on the go, the NDP pushed the theme that life in the province is good.
Then, in May, came the kind of good news any politician would love. The National Hockey League announced its return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. The Jets would play in a modern downtown arena the NDP had helped fund over protests from the opposition.
Voters, at least inside Winnipeg, do not appear to be itching to throw out the NDP, Prof. Adams said.
Outside the capital, however, severe flooding and a hard year in farm country appear to have soured the party’s chances of maintaining all its rural seats.
But Winnipeg is the key to victory in any election – 31 of the 57 legislature seats are inside the city. The Probe poll suggested the NDP has 53-per-cent support in the capital to 35 per cent for the Tories.
Still, Mr. Selinger is not taking anything for granted.
“We always take the attitude, and I take the attitude, you’re two votes behind and you have to work right up until when the polls close.”