How to respond to attack ads: The Manitoba edition

Being an opposition party is one of the easier gigs in politics. Basically your job is to criticize the government.  If you so choose, you can describe what you would do better if you were to form government, but that is only if you want to. In many occasions people defeat governments rather than elect new governments so what an opposition party says isn’t always important to voters if their biggest concern is ousting an unpopular government. Because of this we often see governments attack their opposition to illustrate the point that even if you don’t like us the other guys are worse. The federal Conservative Party is great at this and Manitoba’s NDP has used the strategy effectively, as well.

How to respond to attacks is always tricky for opposition parties. Many believe that no attack should go unanswered but responding directly to an attack means that you are letting the other party control your agenda and you are playing on their terms.

Manitoba PC leader Brian Pallister waited an entire month to respond to the NDP’s “running with scissors” attack ads, which were in heavy rotation on TV during the Winter Olympics. The ads, no matter how contrived and outdated they may be, will at least plant the idea in voter’s heads that a PC government led by Brian Pallister will cut civil service jobs. With this in mind the PC Party released a “security pledge to public servants.” The pledge states “no frontline civil servants will lose their jobs under a Progressive Conservative Government.”

Politicians are often accused of saying whatever it takes to get elected.  No party is immune.  When in opposition you can make all sorts of outlandish claims.  Don’t forget the NDP promised to eliminate hallway medicine when they defeated the PC government in 1999. Realities of governing are complex. No opposition party can fully grasp the state of a province from the outside looking in. That is why this security pledge to public servants comes off as either bizarre, cynical or naïve.

The pledge attracted some media attention but didn’t get many people, besides keen political watchers, talking but it does serve as an indication of where the PC Party is headed under Brian Pallister and how they aim to end their time in the political wilderness.The other most notable pledge the PC Party has made ahead of a 2016 election is to roll back the hated 1 percent PST hike the NDP introduced in 2013. The PC Party is saying it will stop collecting the $227 million the PST increase is said to have added to provincial coffers, but don’t worry provincial civil servants we want your votes so we promise not to eliminate any of your jobs.

Only the most hawkish fiscal conservatives would advocate taking an axe to frontline civil servant jobs in search of savings, but it is another matter to make such a promise while in the next breath complaining about the provincial debt and advocating tax cuts. Opposition parties love to talk about “efficiencies” and if only the government were being run more “efficiently” the province would be flush with cash. It is a disservice to all Manitobans to talk about finding ways to save provincial money while promising to coddle frontline civil servants. A government is either serious about cutting costs and will seriously review all areas of provincial spending or it just saying what needs to be said in order to get elected and it will deal with the fallout when the time comes.

One of the most surprising things about this pledge is the man behind it. When Brian Pallister ran unopposed for the leadership of the party it was shortly after a very lackluster 2011 campaign where many believed the party went soft under leader Hugh McFadyen and accused it of trying to “out NDP the NDP.” This was all about to change under Pallister was the thought. No more running away from the Filmon years, he was proud to have served in that government. Many found that refreshing, the PC Party would stand for something again. It is this that makes the pledge all the more bizarre and disheartening. There can be absolutely no doubt if a PC government is elected in 2016 it will inherit a large mess from the NDP who have been running the province for over fifteen years. The provincial debt is over $30 billion and counting, Manitoba is becoming less and less attractive to business and many of our best and brightest are choosing or are forced to pursue their goals in other provinces.

Manitobans need to have a serious discussion about where they’d like to see their party headed and which leader should be taking them there. The NDP have so far not offered any vision. They continue to be more concerned with what happened 20 years ago. The PC Party has never been in a better position to form government than where they are right now. They have an opportunity to engage in an honest discussion with Manitobans, to talk about real issues, and the future. It’s regrettable that many of the promises they’ve made thus far have been the easy, safe ones.