The most telling moment in what will go down as one of the dullest provincial elections in years – partly the fault of the campaigns, partly just bad luck – took place in the final leaders’ debate in late September.
Finger pointing, voice finally raised (slightly), Manitoba’s New Democratic Party Leader Greg Selinger turned on Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard.
Admit it! Mr. Selinger challenged. Mr. Gerrard, the NDP Leader maintained, had made a huge mistake and was “wrong” earlier this year when he voted on cuts that would have slashed millions from the provincial budget.
Mr. Gerrard fumbled momentarily. Okay, he agreed sheepishly, “It was a mistake.”
No one, surprisingly, called this never-before-heard moment the “knockout punch.” Perhaps there was no need to, as virtually everyone was already unconscious from an election that has gone nowhere but will, mercifully, come to an end some time Tuesday as some Manitobans go to the polls.
It is hard to describe exactly what happened this fall in Manitoba, but in defence of those running for office, politics never really had a chance. It was not only up against the weather – splendid, blue-sky days, summer temperatures – but up against the biggest story in these parts since General Wolseley headed up the Red River to deal with Louis Riel.
The Jets were back in town and were the talk of the town and the province – the only talk.
It was supposed to be a far more compelling race than it turned out to be. Mr. Selinger was no Gary Doer, the charismatic NDP leader he replaced and who had previously won three straight majority governments.
No party has won four straight since then premier Rodman Roblin’s Conservatives back in the days before and during the First World War.
Mr. Selinger lacked the charisma, was forced to deal with new economic realities and, of course, would be dealing with the greatest force known in Canadian politics: the joy of putting the boots to those grown complacent in office. There was, apparently, a strong mood for change at one point, soon replaced with a much stronger mood for cheering on the Jets and basking in the best, and longest, summer in memory.
Mr. Selinger’s main opponent, Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, was supposed to be in “his time,” finally, after an early, and humiliating loss to Mr. Doer in 2007 when the former premier won the largest majority ever in Manitoba.
But Mr. McFadyen, endorsed by the Winnipeg Sun Monday as the “best of a bad lot,” now had his sea legs and was perceived to be on the rise. His problem was, according to the media, that people just didn’t seem to warm to him, no matter how carefully he explained his policies or how popular was his tough stand on crime and gang violence.
Mr. Gerrard, the Liberal, generally considered “too nice” for politics, was going nowhere. This, despite being considered, for the second election running, to have a solid platform with particular strength in what was expected to be the other main issue: health care. As a former pediatrician, Mr. Gerrard had a good grasp of the issue – even if he seemed to have trouble articulating it once the cameras turned on.
Some of the turns during the campaign will defy political scientists for decades. The Tories came out strong on crime at a time when murders in Winnipeg hit 32 for the calendar year, 34 being the record; at a time when nine of the 32 victims or accused were teenagers; at a time when the latest one charged was 14 years old and only a year ago had blasted a postal worker with a shotgun when the worker refused to hand over his pepper spray.
Yet, in Winnipeg, the Conservatives couldn’t get within a pole of the NDP strength. Similarly, the NDP couldn’t touch the Conservatives in the country.
As for the Liberals, they barely hit 7 per cent. Worse, two ranking Liberals – former MPs John Harvard and Anita Neville – came out publicly in support of Theresa Oswald in the Winnipeg riding of Seine River. Ms. Oswald just happens to be the NDP Health Minister, supposedly Mr. Gerrard’s one strength.
It was a campaign of negative ads with the exception of the kindly Mr. Gerrard, whose party couldn’t afford many ads of any sort.
The closest he came was, in fact, the most telling: the Liberal Leader standing apart from two squabbling children in a schoolyard, the message not only obvious but accurate.
Unfortunately, no one else in the schoolyard was paying much attention to the fight, or to the outcome.