Maybe Manitoba was always immune to the trend. Or perhaps the wave of anti-status quo, throw-the-bums-out sentiment that has swept North America - obliterating the federal Conservatives in the 1993 election and congressional Democrats in the United States last fall - is finally beginning to ebb. Manitobans flirted with an overthrow: before last week's election was called, opinion polls showed the upstart Liberals running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. But Liberal support collapsed during a lacklustre 35-day campaign. And when Manitobans finally went to the polls on April 25, they marked their ballots for the tried-and-true, re-electing Gary Filmon's Conservative government with 31 seats - five more than the combined opposition - - and making the 52-year-old former engineer Manitoba's first third-term premier since Conservative Duff Roblin won for the fourth time in 1966. By abandoning the Liberals, voters also restored Manitoba to what it was in the 1970s and 1980s - essentially a two-party province pitting Tories against New Democrats. "The first and most important issue in a campaign is the existing government and whether people want change," said a disappointed Gary Doer, leader of the runner-up NDP. "People didn't."
That is not to say that other incumbent premiers can expect an easy ride. British Columbia's scandal-plagued Mike Harcourt, who enters the fifth year of his mandate this fall, will likely have a fight on his hands when he seeks re-election. The same is certainly true for Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who last week called a provincial election for June 8. In Manitoba, meanwhile, Filmon himself can claim much of the credit for his victory. In March, his government brought down the province's first surplus budget since 1973. And polls during the campaign showed that Manitobans trusted his party's handling of government finances. Those same polls showed Filmon to be the most popular of the three party leaders. Capitalizing on that sentiment, the party campaigned as the "Filmon Team," while the Progressive Conservative name on posters and party literature was in fine print - if it was there at all. Still, Filmon's victory could help Tories elsewhere as they struggle to overcome the backlash that nearly wiped them out federally in October, 1993. "Despite the size of the PC part of our logo," Filmon said with a grin, "I think it has to help Progressive Conservatives running in elections in the next short while in Canada - give them encouragement and show them it can be done."
Filmon has had his own share of political anguish establishing his hold on the party. Shortly after his election as Conservative leader in 1983, he faced unrest in the ranks. "He came through a very rough period when the right wing of the party was challenging him," said University of Manitoba political studies professor Paul Thomas, who has known the premier since they were at university together. "But they underestimated his intestinal fortitude."
Filmon worked to move the party towards the centre and to broaden its largely rural base. By the late 1980s, he had consolidated control. Now, both supporters and critics of his government's fiscal policies say that Filmon puts a friendly face on what some consider tough measures. "He just looks like a moderate, nice gentleman who doesn't seem threatening in any way," says Thomas. Putting it less charitably, Brandon University political scientist Mumulla Naidu described Filmon as "colorless." But that, he said, "is a good thing generally in the Canadian psyche, particularly in Manitoba." At the same time, Naidu said, "the weaknesses of the opposition also helped him."
The results of the Manitoba election, in fact, sounded a warning for Liberals in other provinces hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Political observers in Manitoba say that it was his close ties to the federal party that put Manitoba's Liberal leader, Paul Edwards, in contention early in the race. His party was at 35-per-cent support in an Angus Reid poll on the eve of the election call - just two points behind the Tories and way ahead of the NDP, which had 21 per cent. In the end, however, the Liberals got only 24 per cent of the popular vote and a meagre three seats, down from seven in the last election and not enough even to retain official party status in the legislature. Most humbling of all, Edwards lost his own seat in Winnipeg's west-end St. James constituency. The NDP picked up much of the Liberal losses, winning 33 per cent of the popular vote and 23 seats - three more seats than it won in the last election. The Tories took 43 per cent of the vote, for 31 seats. Edwards sought to put a brave face on his defeat. "We'll lay down and bleed awhile," he told supporters. "But we'll rise to fight another day."
Part of Edwards's problem, political analysts were saying last week, is that the federal party connection rubbed two ways. Although February's federal Liberal budget was generally well-received in Manitoba, Edwards ended up having to defend the elimination of the $560-million Crow Rate benefit to western farmers and the transfer of air force headquarters from Winnipeg to Ottawa - which angered some of the Liberals' potential supporters. So did Edwards's support of federal gun-control legislation. But analysts also laid some of the blame for the party's dismal showing on the 34-year-old Liberal leader and his local campaign team - for running an unfocused campaign and failing to articulate a distinct vision. Observed Naidu: "The Liberals were all over the board."
The NDP's Doer, meanwhile, drew some criticism for running a campaign that was too focused. Although he talked about job creation and promised more investment in education as well, his principal issue was health care. Day after day, he hammered away at the Filmon government for cutting acute-care beds and hospital staff as part of its deficit-reduction efforts. It is an issue dear to the heart of Winnipeg registered nurse Roberta Merke, 42. But even Merke said last week that "I think people just got tired of it." Still, there is no question that Doer succeeded in raising the issue; in an Angus Reid poll near the end of the campaign, 73 per cent of respondents said it was important. And winning a third of the popular vote was a strong showing for a party that was in last place in the opinion polls going into the campaign.
By Manitoba standards, though, it was not a close election at all. And it was the best result so far for Filmon, who led a minority government for two years before securing a slim majority mandate in 1990. This time, though, the victory celebrations came later than expected. The first television reports declared a Conservative majority about 40 minutes after the polls closed. But a cautious Filmon was still waiting for confirmation in a Winnipeg hotel room an hour later, when an anonymous caller phoned a bomb threat in to the hotel. An estimated 1,200 Tory faithful gathered in the ballroom, as well as some 600 hotel guests and restaurant patrons, had to be evacuated for about 45 minutes as police combed the building, finding nothing amiss. Meanwhile, Filmon and his family waited on board a campaign bus outside as supporters gathered around, cheering, shaking party-issued pom-poms and shivering in the frigid night air. At week's end, police said they had no suspects.
Several legislative items died on the order table when Filmon called the election on March 21. And re-introducing them will be his first order of business. They include one of the cornerstones of his campaign - a balanced-budget law - as well as a bill that would require a plebiscite before any major tax increases. Filmon has never actually balanced a budget. But in March, his government projected a surplus for the current 1995-1996 fiscal year and forecast at least a balanced budget for each of the next three years. Critics during the campaign pointed out that the Conservatives' projections did not account for all of the cuts in transfer payments announced in the federal budget. But Filmon said last week that he remained confident that his government would not run in the red - even if the surpluses end up being smaller than expected. Before getting into his legislative agenda, though, Filmon last week had to address the fate of the floundering Winnipeg Jets hockey team. About a thousand people rallied in downtown Winnipeg on Friday, the day after local businessmen - who had been working on a proposal to purchase the struggling franchise and prevent it from being sold to a U.S. city - complained that National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman had scuppered their deal by imposing untenable new demands. The demonstrators, chanting "Save our Jets," marched to the Manitoba legislature. "You're absolutely right," Filmon told the crowd. "The NHL has no right to take away NHL hockey from Canada." He added that he would try to arrange a meeting with Bettman over the weekend, in an effort to resurrect the deal before the May 1 deadline.
During the election campaign, Filmon had promised to try to extricate the government from an agreement to finance part of the Jets' operating losses. But he pledged $10 million to help build a new arena for the team, a key element in the local businessmen's proposal to keep the Jets in town. And although the team's fate remained uncertain last week, Filmon did get credit during the campaign for his efforts. "I think there's a core of real hockey fans," Winnipeg warehouse worker David Andrews, 35, said last week. "If someone was wavering, it might have made up their minds." But Andrews said he voted Conservative because of Filmon himself. "He's not very charismatic," allowed Andrews, who chuckled at the thought. "I think what makes Gary Filmon popular is that he seems to be your average guy - a plain ordinary person. I find him very trustworthy." And in Manitoba, last week, trust scored more points than change.
Maclean's May 8, 1995