Caution in the Air: Conservatism in Manitoba

Brian Kelcey
October 26, 2010
In Manitoba’s case, as with so many other facets of its economy and society, conservatism is best defined by its lack of definition.

Caution in the Air: Conservatism in Manitoba

Brian Kelcey
October 26, 2010
In Manitoba’s case, as with so many other facets of its economy and society, conservatism is best defined by its lack of definition.
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In most Canadian provinces, religious legacies or economic forces, forged through small-town temperance or big-city boosterism, define conservatism. But in Manitoba’s case, as with so many other facets of its economy and society, conservatism is best defined by its lack of definition. Call it “ambivalent conservatism” – but even that phrase might be a little too rigid to be useful.

For example, consider the reign of Sterling Lyon, seen by some to be one of the most conservative – if not the most conservative – premiers in Canadian history. Lyon is praised – and condemned – as an ideological cousin of Margaret Thatcher.

The comparison is not as absurd as it sounds. Thatcher rose to office in the United Kingdom in 1979; Lyon in 1977. By Manitoba standards, Lyon’s government led an almost frantic wave of change, attacking rent controls, trimming social assistance programs, selling off government shares in small companies and eliminating various mining and inheritance taxes. Lyon pushed for the creation of the notwithstanding clause during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1980s and called for the protection of property rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Yet, the Lyon government also hurried hard in the opposite direction. One editorial from the era noted that Lyon was elected on a contradiction, promising to deliver “less government intervention in the private sector and more assistance to private enterprise.” “Assistance” meant spiralling deficits and public investments in doomed industrial megaprojects, including a smelter and a potash mine.

In the Opposition, Lyon attacked the government’s operation of Manitoba Hydro and socialized auto insurance, but both were embraced once he was in office. Lyon later explained his ambivalent approach to Autopac with a memorable quip: “Eggs cannot be unscrambled.” However, his legacy was more easily unscrambled. Lyon was the only Manitoba premier in recent memory to be defeated after his first term, and many of his policies were quickly reversed by the NDP after his 1981 ouster.

Premier Gary Filmon (1988-1999) was more pragmatic, usually preferring modest tax credits and minor cuts to more dramatic action. Nonetheless, similar contradictions and inconsistencies appeared. On the one hand, the so-called Filmon Team did unscramble an egg or two, selling the province’s telephone monopoly in 1996. On the other hand, years later, his government authorized the ‘nationalization by acquisition’ of Centra Gas by Manitoba Hydro.

Since the province’s capital is also home to two-thirds of its population, Winnipeg’s civic politics carry unusual weight in provincial circles. Manitoba’s conservative tightrope is less pronounced but still visible at City Hall.

Winnipeg was one of the first municipalities in Canada to complete a successful public-private partnership (the Charleswood Bridge, built in 1995; renamed the William R. Clement Parkway in 2010). Several city services were contracted out or sold during the last decade, which helped to finance a 13-year property tax freeze that is unmatched in the rest of Canada. Even so, City Hall is also a bastion of organized labour: Winnipeg’s CUPE workers have ironclad job security, even when their jobs are tendered out. Savings come entirely through attrition.

Is the porridge too hot or too cold? On both left and right, Manitobans agonize over variations on this question. The dilemma is partly a function of the province’s tight political geography. Elections are won and lost on tiny shifts of support in a few suburban Winnipeg seats. In Ontario, Tory insiders often remark that Mike Harris would have lost in 1999 if 16,000 votes had gone the wrong way in the wrong ridings. Apply the same analysis to Manitoba and Lyon owed his victory to a similar ‘ground margin’ of just 600 votes. The historical record suggests Howard Pawley’s NDP “crushed” Lyon’s government in 1981, but the numbers tell a different story. ‘Radical’ Lyon won with 49 per cent in 1977 but lost with “only” 44 per cent in 1981 – a shift barely larger than the standard margin of error.

In Opposition through the past decade, Filmon’s successors now walk the same tightrope. Stuart Murray walked too slowly, and party members pushed him off in 2006. Hugh McFadyen led the party in the 2007 election; hopes for a larger caucus were quickly dashed after a strange series of announcements were capped with a vague promise to bring NHL hockey back to the province. To avoid reliving those errors, McFadyen is now leading his party through a painstaking policy renewal process.

As if to prove it is not a problem unique to the Conservative side, the incumbent NDP government has survived in office by maintaining an almost pathological fear of political risk. Capturing the mood, one prominent – and safely anonymous – backroom politician recently told the Winnipeg Free Press, “Winnipeg is a place where good ideas go to die.”

It does not help that Manitoba has little infrastructure to develop new ideas of its own. The Keystone Province has produced more than its fair share of ‘movement conservatives,’ but many have left the province for warmer pastures. The survivors rely on a political business model that is often more colonial than provincial. Resources and ideas are imported or exported, but it is rare to see anyone successfully blending both activities in one place.

For example, the fiscal hawks of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) skilfully exploited the province’s concentration of mainstream media outlets for more than 15 years. As a result, the CTF probably had more influence on the City of Winnipeg’s unlikely 13-year property tax freeze than did any other organized lobby group. And the CTF certainly influenced the province’s 1995 adoption of balanced budget legislation.

However, the organization’s Manitoba membership has always been relatively modest – so much so that it now shares its provincial spokesperson with Saskatchewan. The CTF’s Manitoba membership remains disproportionately rural, even though the provincial capital is where the group’s media and policy influence has had the greatest impact.

Meanwhile, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy is the province’s only conservative think-tank. The Centre dutifully publishes articles on hyper-local Winnipeg issues such as taxi deregulation or downtown redevelopment, but it arguably has a higher profile nationally than it does in Manitoba. The Centre draws a mere fraction of its support from local businesses.

This story of a political movement living in awkward purgatory is rooted in the risk-averse political culture of three constituencies. In 1970, provincial historian W.L. Morton singled out two of them for withering criticism.

Writing in Manitoba: A History to explain the demise of premier Duff Roblin’s Progressive Conservative government in 1970, Morton could just as easily be speaking for present-day activists when he described Winnipeg’s business establishment as “clannish, reactionary, untraveled, fearful of ideas and of imagination … [it] not only failed to support the government but became a dead weight on its efforts, neither aiding nor opposing, but deadening.” Morton was equally unkind to the academic world, complaining that it “was dominated by the same Winnipeg establishment that blighted the prospects of the city and the province.”

Unmentioned in Morton’s tirade is the average rural voter, the base of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party. Rural voters are just as fickle as their Winnipeg cousins are. Call the federal gun registry intrusive and the region’s farmers will join in with seething rage, but sit in any roadside Tim Hortons and apply the same rhetoric to the Canadian Wheat Board’s market micromanagement and temperatures chill swiftly.

If Manitoba’s conservatives hope to influence the province’s future in any meaningful way, its leaders must somehow learn to cope with the province’s chronic pragmatism. Nevertheless, conservatives must also be bold enough to jolt complacent supporters into a sense of common purpose. The right idea might do the trick. But in the place “where good ideas go to die,” a crisis is a more likely cause.

Until then, Manitobans will be off “at the lake,” enjoying the perks of an economy hooked on transfer payments from its neighbours. It is a comfortable lifestyle the province’s establishment has come to take for granted, to its eventual – and certain –peril.

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