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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger delivers his annual state of the province speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in Winnipeg, Tuesday, December 14, 2010. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger delivers his annual state of the province speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in Winnipeg, Tuesday, December 14, 2010. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jets, jobs and crime dominate Manitoba election Add to ...

Strictly speaking, the writ hasn’t dropped in Manitoba’s election. You’d hardly know it, though, as the premier and opposition leader spent last week unleashing attack ads and zig-zagging from one announcement to another.

Manitobans go to the polls Oct. 4, the province’s first fixed-date election, and Premier Greg Selinger is required to formally drop the writ no later than Tuesday.

The race is the first major test for Mr. Selinger as leader of the governing New Democrats, a party with a healthy majority inherited from popular former premier Gary Doer.

Provincially, Manitoba politics is mostly a two-party show, and Mr. Selinger is facing a challenge from Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, a lawyer, former chief of staff for the province’s last PC premier, and former campaign manager to Winnipeg’s mayor.

In a poll earlier this year, Mr. McFadyen had a healthy lead, asking in his slogan: “Where has the NDP left us after 11 years?” Things were looking up.

Unfortunately for the Tory, Mr. Selinger has had a good year. He has been praised by some for his handling of the response to floods that spread across the province this spring; he saw NDP fortunes surge nationally and a June poll placed his own party back in a tie with the PCs; he released a financial update Friday that claimed to show better-than-projected deficit figures (PCs refute it); and he had the good fortune of being the incumbent during the return of the city’s beloved Winnipeg Jets.

“Heck, the Bombers are doing well this year, too,” a giddy Mr. Selinger quipped in an interview, referring to his football team, which currently sits first in the CFL East with a 7-2 record.

However, Mr. McFadyen appears set to stick to an economic and tough-on-crime message, one that could prove fruitful. Winnipeg continues to have a significant problem with violent crime and arson, while the province continues to run a deficit, which the PCs insist Mr. Selinger is low-balling.

They say it doesn’t account for $600-million in flood costs and that the NDP has historically been off the mark on its financial projections, including a half-billion dollar 2009-2010 deficit that had originally been projected as a surplus year.

Mr. McFadyen has also attacked Mr. Selinger for dragging his feet in calling an inquiry into the slaying of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair – an abused child handed back to her parents by provincial officials and slain a year later. The five-year-old case has proven to be explosive, but the long-awaited inquiry won’t begin until after the election.

“They’re a desperate bunch,” Mr. McFadyen alleges.

Both men, as such, face challenges.

In platforms released over the past week, Mr. McFadyen’s party is offering various tax cuts and credits – including a permanent provincial home renovation tax credit, similar to the expired federal Conservative program – and saying the NDP will have to raise taxes if they’ll ever balance the budget by 2014, as projected. The PCs say the budget can’t be balanced until 2018.

In turn, Mr. Selinger pledged to cap the size of kindergarten to Grade 3 classes and spend $24-million training more health workers.

There are two political precedents, both of which provide little clarity. Last fall, incumbent right-winger Sam Katz beat former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis for the mayor’s chair, while this spring the federal Conservatives took 11 of 14 Manitoba seats, two more than they had before the vote.

All this bodes well for a Tory, such as Mr. McFadyen, but also for an incumbent, such as Mr. Selinger. The race is close.

Another challenge Mr. McFadyen has is that, to win, he’ll need to poll well above the NDP to actually win more seats. NDP votes tend to be concentrated in urban ridings, where they win narrow victories, while the Tories pad their popular support totals with blowout rural wins. As such, if the parties are tied in popular support, the NDP would still be projected by observers to win a slim majority of seats. Mr. McFadyen dismissed the projection, saying it’s “not a factor” because his Winnipeg support is strong.

All told, the campaign is in full swing. And it only officially begins Tuesday. “It’s a bit wild,” Mr. Selinger says.

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