Electoral Wipe-Outs and the Aftermath

Ontario Liberals are looking into the abyss.  This isn’t news.  Premier Kathleen Wynne said as much already when she conceded defeat, a rare admission by a campaigning incumbent Premier.

But how bad will it be?  And then what?

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It’s just politics.  Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell on Election Night, 1993.

We’ll know Thursday night where the Liberals will stand, but they stand to face drastic losses.  Reaching 10 seats at this point will be a triumph.  Our numbers at Pollara Strategic Insights, applied to a seat model, indicate there is a greater likelihood that they will be reduced to five or less seats.

Canadian politics provides us with several examples of tsunami elections where incumbent governments were literally washed away:

  • 1987 New Brunswick (58 Liberal, 0 PC).  Premier Richard Hatfield had governed uninterrupted since 1971, but by the mid 1980s, his government had lost its way, not to mention Hatfield’s own personal scandals.  Upstart Liberal leader Frank McKenna mobilized the electorate behind his active, youthful leadership.
  • 1993 Canada (PC’s reduced from 169 seats to 2 seats).  After two successive majority PC governments, the fallout of the Charlottetown Accord defeat, rise of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, and imposition of GST had dealt fatal blows to the Mulroney government.  Despite leadership change and the first and only female prime minister in Canadian history, the PCs were obliterated.  The Liberals had been dealt a hobbling blow themselves in 1984 -their worst outcome since Confederation.  Not only did they return with a majority under Jean Chretien in 1993, a key part of three successive wins was their utter domination of Ontario.
  • 2001 BC (77 BC Liberals, 2 NDP).  The BC NDP pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 1996 when incumbent NDP Premier Mike Harcourt gave way to one of his ministers, Glen Clark.  Clark won a majority by a thin margin.  However, Clark’s government was quickly under siege early and never recovered.  Clark resigned and Ujjal Dosanjh led the NDP into an electoral clearcut.  Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won the largest majority in the province’s history.

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There are examples where governing parties have been rendered extinct – the BC Social Credit, United Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Social Credit, Saskatchewan PCs, and Union Nationale come to mind.

The Ontario Liberals look to finish well below Richard Hatfield’s PCs and Ujjal Dosanjh’s NDP in terms of popular vote.  They have fallen below the “pitchfork line” – my newly coined phrase that I am marketing to Canada’s political science professors. It’s that line where – once crossed – a government will never recover because a critical mass of voters is so angry that the incumbent government cannot overcome that passion and intensity.

It’s hard to believe that the Ontario Liberals will become a political DoDo bird.  It’s more likely they will rise again, in due course.  Among the stages of recovery:

  • Mourning
  • Walk of humility
  • The professional class gives way to the true believers and new believers
  • New governments eventually screw up, therefore, opportunity
  • Momentum builds for a comeback
  • Time passes, change is inevitable

1987 New Brunswick – the PCs came back and won the first election after the retirement of McKenna.  It took a while to rebuild and the flash-in-the-pan Confederation of Regions Party supplanted the PCs briefly during that period.  But eventually, voters stopped punishing the PCs and Bernard Lord’s PCs returned to power in 1999. (12 year recovery)

1993 Canada – From two seats, the PCs climbed to official party status, then the merger with the Canadian Alliance, which had evolved itself from the Reform Party.  After forcing a minority in 2004, Stephen Harper won the 2006 election and governed for nine years. (13 year recovery)

2001 BC – the NDP were reduced to two of 79 seats.  They roared back in 2005 almost upsetting the Campbell government, and for the next three elections, there was a 4-point standoff between the governing BC Liberals and NDP.  After 16 years, in 2017, the NDP returned to power, with support from the Green Party.  While missing their chance at the 12 year mark, they are there now. (16 year recovery)

Whatever happens on June 7th, the Liberals will not be dead, they will just be resting.  In all likelihood, they will be back some day.  The three-party system is well-established in Ontario. Maybe it will be the 12 to 16 year range like the examples above.  Or maybe the volatility of today’s politics will expedite that process.

I will draw from my own personal experience.  My first campaign was in 1984 when as a Liberal in the Mission-Port Moody riding, I saw the pitchforks first-hand.  Voters were very angry with the Pierre Trudeau government and weren’t buying the change that John Turner offered as his replacement.  While burma-shaving on the Lougheed Highway in that summer campaign, the rage emanating from the commuters was hotter than the pavement we were standing on.  We were clobbered, going from government to 40 seats – the most humiliating defeat for the Liberal Party since Confederation.  Yet, the Party rebuilt, made a hard charge during the 1988 election, and then won a decisive majority in 1993.  A nine year recovery.

In 1988, I was on hand for Liberal Sharon Carstairs’ amazing breakthrough from one to 20 seats in Manitoba, only a few seats from governing.  Then again in 1991, for BC Liberal Gordon Wilson’s rise to Official Opposition from zero seats.  Turnarounds can be faster than people expect, especially in the social media age.  I mean, six months ago, did anyone – anyone – expect Doug Ford would be the next Premier of Ontario?  Anything can happen.

Ontario Liberals can learn from the 2011 federal election and events thereafter.  It was a humiliating loss for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals and many touted a Liberal-NDP merger, with the NDP having the strong hand.  Until halfway through the 2015 election campaign, it looked like Tom Mulcair’s NDP were the primary opposition to Harper.  Justin Trudeau turned the tables and governs today, taking his party from third to first in probably the most dramatic comeback in Canadian political history.

A huge loss can be a good loss.  It allows for new growth and regeneration.  The Liberals will shake off “government-itis” in the face of the obvious. Voters will want to see that the Party has learned its lesson, has changed, and is offering new leadership.  Internally, the party will need to heal and unify.

Electoral wipe outs – and subsequent recoveries – speak well for our system.   There is elasticity.  Voters are in charge, punishing when they are mad, generous to parties that change and renew.  Parties that can take a punishing hit, rebuild, and contend for power are examples of parties that strive to be inclusive, rather than staying in a narrow box that only appeals to a narrow slice of voters (like the Greens, for example).  For Ontario Liberals, this phase may be over, but it will also be the beginning of something new.

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1991: The election that transformed BC politics

British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics in more ways than one.

It was the election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government and only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for a decade. But its longer-term impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.

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Gordon Wilson, BC Liberal leader in 1991 breakthrough election.

The Social Credit Party had governed for 36 of the previous 39 years, mostly with a Bennett at the helm. It had renewed itself during the first NDP term of office in the 1970s and emerged stronger under WR Bennett with a broader base of support. Bennett had revived the Socred coalition by attracting Liberals, Conservatives, and even an NDP MLA to run with him in 1975. The renewed coalition was maintained for three elections (1975, 1979 and 1983) in the most polarized elections in BC history. When the Social Credit chose a new leader in 1986, they chose Bill Vander Zalm. While he led the Socreds victory one more time, their coalition would unravel under his premiership.

Starting in the early 1980s, a small group of Liberals worked to revive the provincial wing. From virtually no candidates in 1979, they ran close to a full slate in 1983 under leader Shirley McLaughlin, with parachutes attached to many Young Liberals. They garnered about 3%. Most federal Liberals (and they were a vanishing species at that time) were supporting the Social Credit Party.

Undaunted, Liberals held a leadership convention in 1984 where former Member of Parliament Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader of a political party in BC, defeated Stan Roberts, who would go on to help establish the Reform Party of Canada. Lee would build a strong relationship with Liberal Party of Canada leader John Turner, who represented Vancouver-Quadra, and BC’s Iona Campagnolo who was president of the Liberal Party of Canada.   “A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal” was a mantra I heard at my first political convention in 1985 as a keen 16-year old.

When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, Art Lee fielded a team of candidates across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. Rather, Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped NDP Leader Bob Skelly’s opening press conference flutter. The Liberals were squeezed out, but doubled their vote to about 7%. Hopes for a seat were dashed as they were shut out of the Legislature. Art Lee stepped down. On election night, BCTV cruelly reported that Art Lee was going to win his seat. Bedlam erupted at Liberal HQ. Out in Maple Ridge where I was stationed, we piled into cars and headed in for the ‘party’. Somewhere around the Sperling interchange, CKNW reported that someone had made an error and Art Lee was 5th! Cheers turned to tears at the Liberal election night party at the Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark there. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.

By the time the BC Liberals got around to choosing a new leader on Hallowe’en Day 1987, there was only one candidate – Gordon Wilson. A political unknown to most, he had at least been elected to local office on the Sunshine Coast and put up a respectable showing there in the 1986 election. He was an outsider to the Vancouver-centric Liberal Party in BC. Yet he showed up and took on the mantle.

The focus for Liberals in BC during that time was federal politics with an election looming in 1988. While Wilson sought to get established, the Vander Zalm government started its meltdown. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters, mostly Liberals I think, sought to encourage Jack Poole (Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit implosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, but ultimately decided not to seek the leadership. Gordon Wilson, who had reluctantly cooperated with the Poole potential candidacy, ventured forth unfettered when Poole left the scene. No one gave him much of a chance.

Wilson’s leadership in 1989 and 1990 could be described as persistent and tenacious, but also was met with setbacks. Byelection results were disappointing while the party was in a constant financial crisis. Federal politics intervened again as Jean Chretien succeeded John Turner in June 1990 after a lengthy leadership campaign.   One issue where Wilson and Chretien had common ground was over the Meech Lake Accord. Wilson was as a strong critic and aligned with Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the issue. This was a very divisive issue within the Liberal Party of Canada, but Wilson made a name for himself on this issue. However, the relationship with the Chretien team would become increasingly uneasy.

I was part of a group that believed, for some years, that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parties. The “BC Liberal Party” needed to be strictly provincial and put BC first on issues. During the Turner years, the party membership did not want to make the move, in part out of respect for Turner. However, by 1991, the provincial wing believed it was in their political interests, and the federal wing believed it was in its financial interests. At a convention in Spring 1991, the parties decided to split. This was a defining moment in BC political history. Had this not happened, the BC Liberal Party could not have emerged as a “big tent” political party. It was hard enough to attract non-Liberals to the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s, but it would have been impossible if the provincial party was not independent.

There is no greater boost for an opposition party than an imploding government. With many Socreds absolutely ruling out going to the NDP, and some NDP voters open to a liberal option (as they would never go Socred), the opportunity presented itself.

A core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. If we couldn’t break through this time, there was no hope for the BC Liberal Party ever. We had no money and not much of an organization. But we did have a leader who was quick on his feet and would work day and night to succeed, and we started to draw some candidates that helped with credibility. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy. There were good, young candidates in some places, like Speaker Linda Reid who was elected 25 years ago and ever since, and Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley. But we had many gaps, so when it came to candidate recruitment, I would find them, Christy would close them. During this time there was an epic road trip, borrowing Clive Tanner’s van, to Prince George, the Cariboo, Kamloops, and the Okanagan. Again, this is truly a story for another day.

We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings (I’m still mad about Prince George). That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. Of course, we were shut out of the debate because the NDP and Socreds didn’t want us there. So we launched a protest and had picketers in front of the CBC building. The pressure built and the network capitulated. We could not have asked for a better scenario – to have to fight to get on the debate and then to win the fight.

On debate night, party president Floyd Sully invited me to go to the CBC studios with him and be part of the team with Gordon Wilson. We showed up in his dressing room. I will never forget how calm he was. He was walking around, shirt off, listening but focused – his mind was elsewhere. Very calm. He had experience as an actor, which likely helped his preparation. I’m sure we were chattering away with miscellaneous advice that was completely off point and I’m sure he disregarded it. His media aide, John Stewart, prepared for the onslaught as there was a much bigger media hoard back then. Though the media didn’t know then that Gordon Wilson would be the story of the night and the election.

We watched the debate in the dressing room while it took place down the hall with no audience. When Premier Rita Johnston and Mike Harcourt were squabbling back and forth, Wilson nailed them: “This is a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the Province of British Columbia”. Boom! I don’t think the media realized the impact of that line but they did realize that Wilson had made an impact. We were giddy in the dressing room. Floyd and I sprinted down the hall to the studio. I remember passing Mike Harcourt in the hall, “Hey, how are you” I think he said. Disciplined, cheerful, seemingly unruffled. Rita Johnston didn’t look too happy. Wilson was surrounded in the studio. He would never turn down a media interview after begging for attention for years. We were excited.

I had had this feeling once before when I helped the Manitoba Liberals in the 1988 election – the feeling of everything coming up roses. Sharon Carstairs had risen from one seat to almost win the election, settling for 20 and preventing Gary Filmon from forming a majority. Could this be the same? It was definitely on my mind that we could get on a roll, big time. There wasn’t a lot of time left in the election either.

Floyd and I thought we should head back to Party headquarters at 210 West Broadway. The office was closed so we walked in and our six-line switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree. We took calls, offers of help, crazies, you name it. We had finally been noticed.

An interesting thing about the 1991 campaign was that BCTV commissioned and ran nightly polls. While it continues to lead the ratings now as Global, back then it really dominated. Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and they would announce the new numbers in their daily poll. The poll was probably a methodological disaster, but once the debate happened our numbers spiked. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds became doomed. The Socred coalition was built on winnability. It became clear within days that the Liberals would be the party that would challenge the NDP.

As we headed into Thanksgiving weekend, there was a real likelihood we could win. The momentum seemed unstoppable. I remember talking on the phone with Clive Tanner, who was running in Saanich North & the Island and would win decisively. We speculated about forming government. At that point, Clive, who was in the bathtub, contemplated electrocuting himself.

The NDP appeared to get a grip and turned their guns on us. Glen Clark showed his fangs and attacked our platform. A hastily organized press conference where Gordon Wilson and Floyd Sully (who had run and served as Finance critic) costed our platform was necessary. Vaughn Palmer provided a dose of the first scrutiny our campaign had had. Up until the final week, no one thought we had a chance so no one cared if our plan made sense or who our candidates were. I think I can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.

Around that time, I was driving up Kingsway in Vancouver and came across Glen Clark’s campaign office. I walked in to collect some brochures. I was greeted by a receptionist (best practices) and was quickly identified as “undecided”. I was directed to a table of brochures and within 20 seconds I had Glen Clark interrogating me. “Hey, how are you? Undecided? Want a coffee?” Here he was in a safe seat and he was working for every vote. Of course, I folded like a cheap lawn chair from Zellers. I confessed my true identity and Glen switched gears to quiz me on Floyd Sully, who he debated on finance issues. “What’s he like? He seems intense.” Etc. In any event, that gives a glimpse how hungry the NDP were.

We had come from zero to somewhere. By the time Election Day arrived, I don’t think we thought we were going to win. But I did think something would happen, but how much, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It’s quite something to look at history and conventional wisdom then use your eyes and ears to understand what’s happening right in front of you.

In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to the Sunshine Coast to help the leader with his local campaign. He had to win and we were there to help. On October 17th at 8pm, we watched the first tranche of early results in Sechelt where it looked like we would be Opposition and would eclipse the Socreds. Gordon Wilson was up in Powell River. By the time the votes were all tallied up, we won 17 seats and 33% of the vote. We won historically liberal seats on the North Shore and west side of Vancouver, but we also took Saanich North, Richmond, South Delta, South Surrey, most of the Fraser Valley, and Kelowna. Places where Liberals had no business winning, usually.

It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson flew down to Vancouver to address supporters, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat over to Horseshoe Bay. It was a calm, warm night, cruising on moonlit waters before everything would change.

Volunteers from West Van picked us up in station wagons and drove us to the Villa Hotel in Burnaby. It was electric. My best friend Iain, who is a big guy, was drafted to bring Wilson into the room with another big guy, Jim. Peter Gzowski would comment on the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.

There was a grumpy old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. I will never forget walking into that ballroom and seeing Dick and everything we had worked for was in his eyes. When you are part of an underdog team that overcomes the odds like that, it is a really special bond. But when you add in the unselfishness of a guy like Dick Kirby, it is a joyful moment.   I will never forget that.

That’s where the story should end. It’s a good story.

Euphoria doesn’t last. Hard political choices are ultimately made. Organizations that can skate by for 28 days cannot sustain years of grinding unless they change. The BC Liberals had to decide what it wanted to be if it wanted to govern. It would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when it elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. It would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when it failed to win. It would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the NDP tanked, but waited until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls. It was a long decade. During that time, a modern political party was built one meeting at a time, one chicken-dinner fundraiser at a time, one local parade at a time, one vote at a time. The old saying comes to mind – the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. The hard work paid off with the greatest election win in BC history when the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the 2001 election.

Since 1991 the Party has changed and evolved. It has become a successful, modern political party that has taken a big-tent approach. Gordon Wilson created the opportunity. Gordon Campbell built the foundation, in painstaking fashion, and cemented it as the free enterprise coalition through eight grinding years in Opposition and three successive winning elections. Christy Clark renewed it and earned her own term, tapping into the 1991 experience, knowing that conventional wisdom can be defied, that the ultimate connection for leaders is with the voters, not the intermediaries, and that believing in oneself and the team around you is essential.

All three BC Liberal leaders – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – also teach us that it’s bloody hard work to create, build, and renew. I’m honoured to have served all three. And I’m honoured to have worked alongside those beyond the headlines that made it possible. It’s been quite a journey.

Update:

This blog post was cited by Nicole Garton in her well-researched article “The Big BC Shift”  which walks through the evolution of BC politics.  A good read for those interested in BC politics, which I assume is you since you are reading this.

Footnote:

Former MLA Wilf Hurd, who was elected in 1991, recently put an anthology of recollections together that marked this historic election and how it happened – “On the Edge of the Ledge – Rise of the BC Liberal Party 1986-1991”. Vaughn Palmer reviewed it here.

Manitoba Election cheat sheet

“Glorious and Free” is the Manitoba motto.  Free of the NDP by midnight Tuesday, I’ll bet, though not very gloriously.

Despite some late controversy over the Manitoba PC leader’s sojourns to Costa Rica, available evidence seems to indicate it’s the NDP that will be heading to sunnier climes come Tuesday night.  The recent TV debate did nothing to motivate NDP and Liberal voters and, if anything, opened up the Greens as a protest vehicle for centre-left voters.  For British Columbians, some parallels to 2001.  Voters seem focused on getting the job done despite reservations with the leading party.   See my earlier analysis here.

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They have unicorns in Manitoba – maybe the NDP have a chance?

 

In 2011, Greg Selinger’s Manitoba NDP won 45.9% of the popular vote and elected 37 MLAs.

Hugh McFadyen’s PCs won 43.5% of the popular vote and elected 19 MLAs.

The Liberals held the seat of their then-Leader Jon Gerrard and received 7.5% of the popular vote.

While the PCs won rural (non-Northern) Manitoba by 22 points, they couldn’t crack Winnipeg. The NDP harvested 51% of the votes in Winnipeg, powering their majority and added to their seat count with their base of support in Northern Manitoba where they took 61.4% of the vote across five seats.

Table 1: Popular vote by region, 2011 MB election

LIB NDP PC
North 5 seats 4.71% 61.38% 32.44%
Rest of MB 21 seats 4.43% 35.69% 57.84%
Winnipeg 31 seats 9.60% 50.88% 35.67%

The following table ranks the ridings in order of percentage of NDP vote from the 2011 election.  The NDP scored 73.2% in The Pas.  They won 8 seats by over 60% and a further 25 seats by over 50%.  The remaining four seats were in the 45-49% range.   In many jurisdictions like BC, Alberta, and federally, you will see instances of elected members with 30% or less.  Manitoba has been very polarized.

The PCs look poised to win a bushel of seats from the NDP in that group from 45% to 60% (NDP vote in last election). The NDP seats in the plus 60% range may hold.

High profile NDP candidate Wab Kinew, embattled by campaign controversy, is running in Fort Rouge against the Liberal leader Rana Bokhari.  This would be a seat that the NDP ought to lose given the trend in the numbers.  The Liberal leader is out of the picture, it seems. So the PCs could emerge as the winner here.

The Green Leader James Beddome is seeking a seat in Fort Garry-Riverview. A bit of a stretch to see a Green win, but not a surprise to see a decent second.

In the table below, NDP supporters will not want to see any PC wins until much further down the list.  A PC win in a riding that was plus 60% for the NDP last election would be a very bad sign.

Table 2: Seats in order of NDP % of the vote in the 2011 election

Electoral Division Member Elected Party NDP%
The Pas WHITEHEAD, Frank NDP 73.21%
Point Douglas CHIEF, Kevin NDP 72.88%
St. Boniface SELINGER, Greg NDP 68.57%
Thompson ASHTON, Steve NDP 68.20%
Minto SWAN, Andrew NDP 66.00%
St. Johns MACKINTOSH, Gord NDP 65.55%
Concordia WIEBE, Matt NDP 62.72%
Wolseley ALTEMEYER, Rob NDP 60.25%
St. Vital ALLAN, Nancy NDP 59.80%
Kildonan CHOMIAK, Dave NDP 59.20%
Burrows WIGHT, Melanie NDP 59.01%
Logan MARCELINO, Flor NDP 58.09%
Assiniboia RONDEAU, Jim NDP 58.00%
Transcona REID, Daryl NDP 57.92%
Flin Flon PETTERSEN, Clarence NDP 56.84%
Kewatinook ROBINSON, Eric NDP 56.80%
Rossmere BRAUN, Erna NDP 56.38%
Swan River KOSTYSHYN, Ron NDP 55.82%
Selkirk DEWAR, Greg NDP 55.59%
Fort Garry-Riverview ALLUM, James NDP 55.29%
Radisson JHA, Bidhu NDP 54.95%
Dauphin STRUTHERS, Stan NDP 54.78%
Riel MELNICK, Christine NDP 54.69%
Brandon East CALDWELL, Drew NDP 54.68%
Elmwood MALOWAY, Jim NDP 54.15%
Fort Richmond IRVIN-ROSS, Kerri NDP 53.16%
Seine River OSWALD, Theresa NDP 52.88%
Dawson Trail LEMIEUX, Ron NDP 52.24%
Southdale SELBY, Erin NDP 51.84%
The Maples SARAN, Mohinder NDP 51.49%
Gimli BJORNSON, Peter NDP 51.43%
Fort Rouge HOWARD, Jennifer NDP 50.95%
Interlake NEVAKSHONOFF, Tom NDP 50.24%
St. James CROTHERS, Deanne NDP 49.61%
Brandon West HELWER, Reg PC 46.72%
Kirkfield Park BLADY, Sharon NDP 46.61%
Tyndall Park MARCELINO, Ted NDP 45.00%
St. Norbert GAUDREAU, Dave NDP 44.94%
River East MITCHELSON, Bonnie PC 43.92%
Portage la Prairie WISHART, Ian PC 39.14%
Lac du Bonnet EWASKO, Wayne PC 38.42%
St. Paul SCHULER, Ron PC 37.26%
Riding Mountain ROWAT, Leanne PC 34.41%
Arthur-Virden MAGUIRE, Larry PC 30.09%
Charleswood DRIEDGER, Myrna PC 29.88%
Fort Whyte McFADYEN, Hugh PC 29.49%
Spruce Woods CULLEN, Cliff PC 28.47%
La Verendrye SMOOK, Dennis PC 26.02%
Lakeside EICHLER, Ralph PC 25.84%
Tuxedo STEFANSON, Heather PC 25.30%
Midland PEDERSEN, Blaine PC 23.56%
Emerson GRAYDON, Cliff PC 19.60%
Morris TAILLIEU, Mavis PC 19.26%
River Heights GERRARD, Jon Liberal 17.74%
Agassiz BRIESE, Stu PC 17.12%
Morden-Winkler FRIESEN, Cameron PC 11.38%
Steinbach GOERTZEN, Kelvin PC 7.60%
 NDP in MB 45.94%

Manitoba: NDP toast; Libs failure to launch

With the April 19th provincial election looming, the Manitoba NDP is in a dire situation.  It’s not much better for the Liberals.

The PCs have a substantial lead according to most polls.  They have maintained a comfortable margin over the NDP.  Earlier in the campaign, the NDP may have been more preoccupied with the Liberals cannibalizing their vote.  Instead, the Liberal leader has tanked and it hasn’t helped the NDP much.

Figure 1: Depiction of NDP support in Manitoba (second slice for Liberals)11820555

It coulda been ’88 all over again

I campaigned for Sharon Carstairs in 1988 when she zoomed from one seat to twenty and Official Opposition status.  It was a Prairie brush fire.  She darn near won the election, and did in fact force a minority government.  The election had major national implications.

Like the 2016 election, there was a deeply unpopular NDP government.  There was a Liberal Party that was rising in the polls.  And a PC leader that had mixed reviews.  The NDP lost a vote in the Legislature (defeated by their own Speaker) precipitating an election.  Premier Howard Pawley resigned and called a leadership convention, which elected Gary Doer.  Doer, against common practice, was not sworn in as Premier.  He led the Party into the election to a third-place finish.  At least renewal in the NDP was underway.

This election has been far different for the NDP.  The incumbent Premier Greg Selinger faced an internal revolt and beat back the dissidents in a leadership review and limped into the election.  Renewal postponed.

The PCs in 1988 were led by Gary Filmon.  Nice guy.  Bland.  Didn’t set the world on fire.  He narrowly lost to the NDP in 1986 (30 seats to 26).  In 1988, the NDP vote was collapsing but voters weren’t sprinting to the PCs.  Would Filmon get them over the finish line?  If not, political career over.

Enter Sharon Carstairs.  She held her own seat in the Legislature, a minor miracle for a Liberal on the Prairies to be elected in the 1980s.  She built the Party up and stood out as a strong opponent of the Meech Lake Accord, aligning with prominent national opponents  like Jean Chretien.

As a Young Liberal in the day, I drove across the Prairies with my buddy Iain in his Ford Escort to support an improbable breakthrough.  We door-knocked for Liberal candidates like current MPs Kevin Lamoreux and Jim Carr, and former BC Liberal MLA Gulzar Cheema – all who ran in that campaign.  And many others too – let’s just say, there were a lot of “characters” running in that campaign.  Current MP Terry Duguid was the Liberal executive director then.

Carstairs seized the agenda during the TV debate and never looked back.  Momentum that was building, exploded (Gordon Wilson followed this playbook in the 1991 BC election).  She raced to the top of the polls.  When the dust settled, Carstairs won much of Winnipeg, but was held off by the PCs who used their rural muscle to win a plurality of seats, albeit a minority.

Figure 2: Coveted political artefactIMG_4154

 

Carstairs strong opposition to Meech Lake pushed the Filmon government into taking a much tougher position.  The three leaders – Filmon, Carstairs, Doer – were all in Ottawa for the constitutional showdown in June 1990.  They brought the final deal home to Manitoba where Elijah Harper defeated it, and in doing so, killed the Accord.  Do elections matter?  In this case, the Liberal surge in 1988 changed the course of Canada’s constitution.  Meech may have happened with a Filmon majority.

What’s up with 2016?

So, why isn’t it happening this time?  The conditions are there.  Deeply unpopular NDP with a lot of of centre-left voters shopping for an alternative.  The PC leader Brian Palliser is perceived as less moderate than Gary Filmon.  His leadership numbers aren’t bad but they are not great either.  And the federal Liberal brand is far, far stronger in 2016 than it was in 1988.

It boils down to the Liberals.  Sharon Carstairs was a crackerjack leader.  She ultimately could not sustain the growth in Liberal support, but she was the right leader at the right time in 1988.  From my perch going from riding to riding, I detected real enthusiasm from the grassroots and strong leadership in the campaign.  It was loose, it was fun, and everyone was going with it.

This time, the Liberal leader Rana Bokhari has struggled.  Mainstreet polled following the TV leader’s debate on April 12th.  She was a minus 40 on impressions; NDP Premier Greg Selinger was minus 32.  Brian Palliser was a net zero.  That’s a lot of collective disappointment for the voters.  The Green leader James Beddome scored the best.  Her high polling numbers pre-writ masked underlying weaknesses that have been exposed during the writ period.  In 1988, had social media existed, I’m pretty sure some of the guys who got elected as Liberals would not have made it to the ballot box (I could tell you about the guy with mirrors on his ceiling).  In 2016, the Liberals lost six candidates, which blows you off message pretty quickly.  And was there a message?  Not apparently.  Compared to Carstairs, she wasn’t ready.

Palliser also has the good fortune of not having a federal Conservative government in power.  Filmon was plagued by Brian Mulroney who had moved a huge CF-18 contract from Manitoba to Quebec.  If there is a Harper hangover, it hasn’t hurt him too much.

After 1988, Filmon moved to occupy Carstairs’ territory on the Constitution.  He called an election in 1990 and secured a majority, and repeated the feat in 1995.  Gary Doer hung in there, losing three elections before he won three of his own.   The Liberals faded into the background.  With the federal Liberals gaining 45% of the vote in Manitoba six months ago, this was to be their time again after a 27 year frost.

Now, with both the NDP and Liberals performing poorly, and the Greens highly unlikely to convert growth into seats, this has the makings of a very strong PC majority. The NDP should retain a nucleus of members.  It doesn’t look like an apocalypse along the lines of New Brunswick 1987, Canada 1993, or BC 2001.  It may look more like Saskatchewan.  Core NDP seats in Winnipeg and Northern Manitoba should be held even if their popular vote dips as low as 25%.  As for the Liberals, they will look back on missed opportunity.

Update: Mainstreet released a poll April 16th that showed the race at 55% PC; 26% NDP; and with the Greens ahead of the Liberals in Winnipeg, indicating that protest voters may have found a new home.  Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals had 57% in 2001 and took 77 of 79 seats.  I think the NDP in Manitoba will do better than the BC NDP did in 2001 which will save core seats.  They do better with older voters (who vote).

Green Leader James Beddome is running in Fort Garry / Riverview, a seat that went 55% NDP in 2011 but they will likely lose next week.  Voters went federal Liberal in 2015.  So, given his strong debate performance and momentum, it is not out of the question that the Greens win a seat.  The Alberta election saw an Alberta Party member elected along with a lone Liberal.  BC has a Green and an independent provincially, along with a federal Green MP.  Beddome’s riding is adjacent to River Heights which used to send Sharon Carstairs to the Legislature.  It will be a steep hill for the Greens to climb but Beddome will likely do respectably.