Filmon Under Fire

With his rimless glasses, buttoned-down appearance and unflappable manner, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon bears an uncanny resemblance to Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent.

Filmon Under Fire

With his rimless glasses, buttoned-down appearance and unflappable manner, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon bears an uncanny resemblance to Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. And according to those who know him, beneath the calm exterior of Canada's longest-serving current premier beats the heart of a deeply competitive street fighter. Raised in Winnipeg's gritty north end, the son of eastern European immigrants, Filmon doggedly strove for and achieved success, first as an engineer, then as a small-business man and finally as a politician. "He loves to win and he loves to be the best," says University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas, who also grew up in the north end and was once Filmon's fraternity brother - though the friendship has since cooled. "When challenged, he fights back."

Those instincts were on display last week as members of the Manitoba legislature convened for their spring sitting - almost certainly the last session before a provincial election, which is expected within months. After a nine-month hiatus, the sitting gives opposition members their first chance to grill the 56-year-old Filmon about the findings of a commission of inquiry into the province's so-called vote-rigging scandal. The inquiry's report, released on March 29, confirmed that several senior provincial Conservatives, including the premier's own former chief of staff, had conspired to recruit and fund independent native candidates in three Manitoba ridings in the 1995 provincial election in an attempt to bleed off votes from the NDP. The same Tories later engaged in a coverup of their actions. When NDP house leader Steve Ashton last week urged the premier to confirm his own role in the coverup, Filmon's icy response hinted at a man itching for a scrap. By making allegations for which he had no proof, declared Filmon, Ashton "demonstrates not only his lack of courage, but perhaps his lack of integrity."

In fact, in his responses both inside and outside the legislature, Filmon appeared to have a three-word message for his critics: get over it. Repeatedly, he cited one sentence from the 69-page inquiry report written by former Manitoba chief justice Alfred Monnin. It read: "Premier Gary Filmon testified that he was not aware of the plot or the coverup and I find his evidence to be credible." Filmon repeated the refrain during an interview with Maclean's last Friday at his second-floor legislature office. "I think most people believe it's time to move on," he said. "Every matter that should be investigated has been. Anything further than that is just going to be political grandstanding."

But it may not be that easy for Filmon to put the scandal behind him. A Probe Research Inc. public opinion poll of residents in Winnipeg - where over two-thirds of Manitobans reside - conducted last month on behalf of the Winnipeg Free Press, showed that fully 56 per cent of respondents did not believe Filmon was telling the truth when he said he was kept in the dark about the vote-rigging scheme. Skepticism was rampant even among the Filmon faithful: 34 per cent of Tory supporters surveyed said they, too, doubted the premier's word.

That apparent credibility gap comes at a time when Filmon is in a dogfight with his longtime adversary, NDP Opposition leader Gary Doer. The Free Press poll put the NDP in the lead within Winnipeg with 38-per-cent support among decided voters, compared with 30 per cent for the Tories and 29 per cent for the Liberals. A separate poll conducted last month by COMPAS for the National Post showed that, provincewide, Filmon and Doer were in a dead heat, with the Tories enjoying 42-per-cent support among decided voters, the NDP 40 per cent and the Liberals 18 per cent.

The NDP hopes to capitalize on Filmon's recent woes by tying public unease over the vote-rigging scandal to other areas where the government is sometimes found wanting. In the preamble to his first question of the spring sitting, Doer - who has lost three successive elections to Filmon - quoted one of the most memorable passages from the Monnin report. Recalling the testimony of the high-profile Tories who perpetrated the vote-rigging effort, the retired jurist wrote that "in all my years on the bench I never encountered as many liars in one proceeding as I did during this inquiry." Doer leapt from that statement to demand Filmon atone for his "broken promises" regarding improved health-care funding. Earlier in the day, Doer had told Maclean's that, for the vote-rigging affair to have legs, "it has to connect with the feelings people have that they were also deceived on other vital issues. The biggest scandal is the one that affects their neighbours and their own families - and that's health care."

With an election imminent, Manitoba's opposition parties smell blood - and for good reason. After 11 years of leading an effective, if at times staid, government, Filmon is suddenly vulnerable on what had previously been considered one of his political strengths: personal trustworthiness. "My sense is that he is cornered and in difficulty," says University of Winnipeg political scientist Allen Mills. "And, for the first time in his political life, he doesn't get to write the script."

For Gary Albert Filmon, political success came early - but never easily. After a brief stint on Winnipeg city council, Filmon was first elected to the legislature in 1979. Four years later, at the age of 40, he took over the leadership of a fractious Conservative party. Filmon fought off challenges from the party's right wing, moving the Tories towards the political centre and broadening the party's support beyond its rural base. After former NDP premier Howard Pawley abruptly resigned in 1988, Filmon led the Tories to a minority government. But even at that, he was upstaged by the mercurial Sharon Carstairs, who had brought her Liberal party from obscurity to within striking distance of power.

Filmon first displayed the unswerving resolve that lurks behind his placid gaze in the spring of 1990, when he resisted ratifying the Meech Lake accord - despite Brian Mulroney's best threats and blandishments. While Filmon ultimately signed the deal, he allowed native leader and MLA Elijah Harper to cinch the demise of the accord by stalling debate in the Manitoba legislature beyond the national deadline. Filmon's actions earned raves at home and, two months later, he called an election in which he won a slim three-seat majority. In 1995, he won a second majority mandate, resulting in the current legislature standings: 31 seats for the Tories, 23 for the NDP and three for the Liberals.

Throughout his years in power, Filmon has pursued a cautious, fiscally conservative agenda. He reined in spending in key areas such as health and education, privatized Crown corporations and reduced taxes modestly. In 1995, his government produced Manitoba's first balanced budget since 1973; it has been running in the black ever since. Filmon's Tories also passed a law requiring the government to balance its books every year and another making it impossible to introduce significant tax increases without first holding a provincewide referendum.

While Filmon's initiatives reflected what was going on in several other provinces, he took the steps with none of the bravado exhibited by Alberta's Ralph Klein, New Brunswick's Frank McKenna and Ontario's Mike Harris. For that reason, perhaps, there was never talk of a "Filmon revolution" - and the premier sometimes groused that he did not get the credit nationally that he deserved. Political scientist Thomas recounts how on several occasions, both publicly and privately, Filmon has complained about all the kudos McKenna received for running a fiscally tight ship not unlike his own. "Filmon had this absolute fixation on McKenna and the fact he had this publicity machine that made him look like some superhero in politics," says Thomas. "Filmon hates that."

Now, there is publicity - the unwelcome kind. Filmon was prodded into calling a public inquiry into the vote-rigging scandal after revelations emerged last summer about how some members of his inner circle had hatched a plot during the 1995 election campaign to bankroll independent native candidates in three ridings where the NDP enjoyed strong support among aboriginals (the plan backfired miserably, as the three bogus candidates garnered less than two per cent of the vote and the NDP won all three ridings). During the inquiry, it was revealed that Taras Sokolyk, the premier's chief of staff and Tory campaign manager for the 1995 election, helped induce Darryl Sutherland, a native welfare recipient, to run in the Interlake riding through, among other things, the offer of $5,000 in cash and the free use of a car. The inquiry found that Sokolyk was aided in this effort by Allan Aitken, the Conservative campaign manager in Interlake, and Roland (Cubby) Barrett, a Tory businessman.

Sokolyk - who resigned as chief of staff last summer, citing personal reasons - admitted to diverting Tory party funds to two other native candidates. The three natives also received personal cheques from Robert Kozminski and Arni Thorsteinson, both prominent businessmen, former Tory fund-raisers and personal friends of Filmon. Sokolyk told the inquiry that he later enlisted the help of Julian Benson, secretary of the Treasury Board and Manitoba's second-highest-ranking civil servant, in covering up the vote-rigging plot by replacing monies diverted from the Tory campaign fund. In his report, Monnin concluded that Benson, who abruptly retired in December, was part of the coverup.

In his own testimony before the inquiry in November, Filmon forcefully denied any prior knowledge of the vote-rigging scheme - a claim Monnin accepted as credible. But ever since, the premier has been in damage-control mode. Before the current sitting of the legislature, Filmon had twice apologized during speeches to the Tory faithful for the unethical behaviour of some of his closest associates and friends. Last week, he rose in the legislature to again say he was sorry - this time for "inaccurate" statements he had made last summer in response to opposition allegations about the vote-rigging plot. Then, on Thursday - two days after 500 native protesters stormed the legislature and were met by riot police wielding pepper spray - Filmon issued yet another apology for the 1995 election scheme while addressing a meeting of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in Winnipeg. "That apology," he said, "to you and to all those you represent, is all-encompassing and unequivocal."

Such public contrition is out of character for the premier, says the University of Winnipeg's Mills. "In the past, his response to criticism was to become petulant, and sometimes nasty," adds Mills. "He's eating a lot of humble pie these days."

It is unlikely that Filmon will remain on the defensive for long. A provincial budget, to be tabled later this month, will set out the Tory agenda for the election that Filmon has promised to call this year. In addition to touting the fiscal health of the province - including strong economic growth and the country's lowest unemployment rate - the budget is widely expected to include increased spending for health and education as well as tax cuts. While he wasn't tipping his hand last week, Filmon told Maclean's that reducing taxes remains a priority. "We don't just compete these days with Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan," he said. "We compete for investment and jobs with North Dakota, Minnesota and areas beyond."

Whether that is enough to erase the lingering taint of scandal remains to be seen. In any event, recent polls suggest that the election - which most pundits now predict will be in the fall rather than the spring - promises to be a bitterly contested affair which could very well end in a minority government for either the Tories or the NDP. As always, though, the kid from the north end who made good is ready for a fight. "I've had challenges before," says Filmon. "I'm happy to say I've overcome them and I'm prepared to do it one more time."

Maclean's April 19, 1999