City & Politics, Politics

The long battle ahead: Brian Pallister and the ailing Progressive Conservative brand

The conventional wisdom in Manitoba suggests that the province is on the precipice of a sea change in its political culture. After 17 years of uninterrupted NDP rule, the prevailing narrative states that the Progressive Conservatives under leader Brian Pallister are poised to reclaim the legislature and turn back the clock on an era of high taxes, administrative bloat and profligate spending.

Indeed, a recent Probe Research poll indicates that the Tories are riding high with 43 per cent of the popular vote, which could be enough for a governing mandate, so long as support in suburban Winnipeg solidifies and the so-called “progressive” vote stays split between the New Democrats and the Liberals. Curtis Brown, vice-president of Probe Research, has argued that the PCs are likely to be very competitive in 10 close ridings, many concentrated in suburban Winnipeg.

These results are buoyed by the precipitous decline of the Manitoba NDP.

The New Democrats have been engaged in a prolonged exercise in self-destruction for the better part of two years, beginning with a cabinet mutiny and exasperated by a divisive leadership vote.

A recent Angus Reid Institute poll shows that Greg Selinger is the most unpopular premier in the country, with an approval rating of 22 per cent. The NDP are running in third place in public opinion polls, behind the once moribund Manitoba Liberals. After four majority mandates, the party boasts a record of ballooning debt, high taxes and worsening socio-economic outcomes for the province’s less fortunate.

And yet, for all the evidence supporting an imminent change in government, Manitoba certainly doesn’t feel like a province on the brink of a political revolution.

Buying into the prevailing conventional wisdom about an imminent Tory victory requires a steadfast faith that the “silent majority” is preparing to vote against Manitoba’s statist political culture, and thus against their immediate best interest.

While the Tories seek to cut taxes and balance the budget through largely undisclosed cuts, middle class Manitobans have a distinct stake in maintaining a robust and growing social welfare state.

In Canada’s highly decentralized federation, provincial governments provide all the services that matter to citizens—from education and health care to key Crown Corporations like Manitoba Hydro. In short, the provincial government does practical stuff that matters. It educates your kids, fixes your mother’s hip and makes sure the lights stay on. And for many there is also a direct financial incentive to support a large provincial state—namely, good paying jobs in the municipal and provincial civil service.

In Manitoba, provincial and local governments employ nearly 150,000 people. In 2011, a Frontier Centre study showed that Manitoba has 103 people in local or provincial government positions per 1,000 residents. This is significantly higher than the Canadian average, pegged at 84 out of every 1,000 people. It is also indicative of the challenges Progressive Conservatives face in Manitoba, and across Canada.

Gary Filmon has been out of office for nearly two decades, and yet his modest public service cuts still feature prominently in our political debate. Filmon Fridays, though widely accepted by many public servants, remain a derisive term in common use. The mythical firing of 1,000 nurses is used as evidence that frontline staff will be on the chopping block in the event of a Progressive Conservative victory. And the privatization of MTS is seen as proof that Manitoba Hydro will be summarily sold off, driving up electricity rates for middle class Manitobans struggling to make ends meet.

Voters are simply unwilling to sacrifice quality in social service provision for fiscal stability. And the province’s large civil service is naturally wary of austerity.

Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak experienced this dynamic firsthand.

Faced with a tired Liberal government seeking a fourth mandate on a record of massive debt and serious ethical improprieties, Hudak was widely predicted to become the next premier of Ontario. But he was pilloried for his pledge to lay off 100,000 civil servants and hold off on the Liberals’ full-day kindergarten program in an attempt to fulfil key recommendations of the Drummond report on the province’s fiscal crunch.

Even journalist Tasha Kheiriddin, a steadfast fiscal conservative, refused to vote for Hudak’s Tories. Indeed, she wrote a scathing rebuke of Hudak’s plan to increase average class sizes and cut non-teaching positions in Ontario public schools. Kheiriddin argued that students like her daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, would be unable to cope in a classroom of over 30 students and without non-teaching support workers.

The recent collapse of the Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty is evidence of similar tendencies among the provincial middle class.

While pundits may speculate about the perfect storm that vaulted Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP to power, it is clear that Jim Prentice’s brand of tough medicine—and his misguided attempt to unite the right around fiscal restraint—was integral to his downfall.

By imploring Albertans to “look in the mirror” to discover the roots of the province’s fiscal calamity, Prentice raised the ire of an electorate that didn’t feel culpable for what they viewed as a budget crisis spurred by Tory malfeasance.

The recent federal election is another case in point.

The Harper Tories lost support for many reasons, not least of which was their reputation for serial nastiness and soft xenophobia. But that doesn’t change the fact that Justin Trudeau won a majority mandate by promising a deficit-financed infrastructure spending bonanza, coupled with a middle class tax cut and the reversal of several Tory belt-tightening reforms to social spending.

The now infamous ad of Trudeau walking up on the down escalator encapsulated the anxieties of middle class Canadians, regardless of whether those anxieties were justified by the country’s macroeconomic outlook.

But where does this leave Pallister and the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives? It strikes me that the party faces a similar uphill battle to restore the moribund PC brand.

Where conservative parties have been successful in Canada in recent years, they have appealed to cultural or social conservatives, bolstered by a small constituency that cares deeply about fiscal prudence.

The Saskatchewan Party and Wildrose Alliance have both attempted to facilitate a political revolution—battling against a hegemonic progressive elite.

But the Saskatchewan Party has been successful because it has reconciled itself to the imperative of an expansive provincial state, used to conservative ends. And if Wildrose and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives seek to learn from their example, they must also ditch all but the most timid of the libertarian wing of their respective parties.

The Manitoba Progressive Conservatives seem to recognize this.

Pallister insists in television ads that frontline staff will be unaffected, even bolstered, by a Tory government. But the imminent prospect of public service cuts haunts them still. And they can’t skirt the issue by promising to balance the budget four years later than the NDP, which was the so-called “responsible approach” offered by Hugh McFadyen in the 2011 election.

Open antagonism toward the civil service is deeply harmful. But the party also can’t campaign as social democrats while governing as conservatives. They must learn from Brad Wall—offer a fiscally prudent, small-c conservative platform dedicated to finding efficiencies in government and putting Manitobans to work in skilled private sector jobs.

Pallister’s recent interview with the Manitoba Teacher’s Society is an encouraging sign. While vowing not to cut teachers from Manitoba public schools, the Tory leader signalled a commitment to improving student testing and empowering school boards to make tough decisions.

However, no one party can even modestly challenge the prevailing statist establishment alone.

In the 2005 book Rescuing Canada’s Right, co-authored by Kheiriddin and lawyer Adam Daifallah, the authors argue that the only way for conservatives to fairly compete in a political culture dominated by the statist left is to build a conservative movement from the bottom up. The authors advocate for a multi-faceted strategy, whereby organized conservative activists penetrate the media, the academy and the civil service—elite bastions typically dominated by the political left.

Kheiriddin and Daifallah make a strong case. But reading the book a decade after its initial publication shows how few of their recommendations have been taken up by the broader community of conservative-minded Canadians, particularly in Manitoba.

In short, the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives could very well prosper from a political climate that is currently stacked against their rivals. But they won’t win by a wide margin, or retain power for long, if they don’t embrace the expansive power and appeal of the provincial state—and begin the difficult work of helping build a real grassroots conservative movement on the Prairies.



Follow Ethan Cabel at: @ethancabel1

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