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Manitoba’s pragmatic conservatism may contain lessons for Andrew Scheer

October 2, 2019 — 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer visited Winnipeg in the first week of the federal election campaign, knowing that his party stands to win back some seats from the Liberals in the province that boasts of its friendliness on licence plates.

Manitoba has 14 federal seats, five of them held by Conservative MPs. That’s likely to change come election night. There’s no doubt party officials looked at Conservative Premier Brian Pallister’s recent historic win as a hopeful sign.

Over the last two elections, Pallister’s Conservatives have won more seats than any back-to-back government in Manitoba’s history. In the end, they were re-elected with a strong majority, with 36 out of a total 57 seats. In his first mandate, Pallister took 40 seats, the biggest majority government ever.

Those hoping to see from Pallister the sort of fiery right-wing political rhetoric often employed by federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario’s Doug Ford or Alberta’s Jason Kenney will walk away disappointed. That’s not something that would work particularly well in Manitoba for a number of reasons.

Read more: Jason Kenney won by portraying himself as the Guardian of Alberta

Pallister may personally share some of the sentiments of the federal Conservative Party – after all, he did serve as a federal MP under the Canadian Alliance Party in 2000, and then under Stephen Harper, he served as a backbencher, shadow critic and parliamentary secretary. When he made the decision to run as the leader of the provincial Conservatives, however, the implementation of policy became very different.

Manitobans have often been characterized much like the bison that represents us: staid, steady, sturdy. Some would say boring.

A province that is in the centre, never too high and never too low. Steady as she goes, Manitoba is a province of Prairie individualism and friendliness that is sometimes suffocating for Manitobans. But it’s also why whoever holds power in the province would have a difficult time introducing anything like the austerity programs of Ford or the populist and anti-migrant sentiments we’re seeing from Kenney or Scheer.

Liberals not a presence

Here’s why.

Manitoba is a two-party system, with the NDP and the Conservatives regularly trading power in government. They tend to be “big tent” when it comes to policy ideas. Both parties at times straddle the centrist space left by having no competitive Liberal party. Indeed, in September, the Liberal party in Manitoba lost its official party status, winning only three seats. Its party leader, Dougald Lamont, was re-elected and has vowed to remain.

Because of the relative weakness of the Liberals, many liberal-minded individuals with political aspirations have either gone to the NDP or the Conservatives. Pallister managed to recruit several of these candidates who won seats in Winnipeg. They probably wouldn’t remain happy within his party if he were to become more populist or aggressive in tone. Their constituencies would also not likely respond well.

That’s another reason why the Tories in Manitoba are more centrist in their approach: Winnipeg.

The biggest city in the province also has the majority of the seats in the legislature. Whoever wins the most seats in Winnipeg wins government.

The urban vote tends to be more progressive, and for Pallister to maintain support, he has to be open to ideas that speak to urban voters.

In Winnipeg, he promised cuts to the provincial sales tax, changing the retail act to allow stores to open on long weekends and pledged to communicate better about changes his government is making to health care. Health care and closures to emergency rooms were top of mind issues during the summer election campaign.

Unlike the Ontario Conservatives, with their dark musings about migrants, Pallister and his caucus are not prone to fanning the fires of anti-migrant rhetoric.

The influence of Mennonites

That’s partly because of the province’s strong Mennonite roots. Manitoba, with its ties to the Mennonite Central Committee, has been responsible for sponsoring immigrants from war-torn countries since the 1970s. The committee and other organizations have stepped up to welcome refugees displaced by the Syrian and Iraqi wars.

But those welcoming sentiments aren’t just urban-based. In small towns like Altona, located southwest of Winnipeg, refugees have enlivened industries and added to the diminishing populations.

The largely Mennonite population along what’s known as Manitoba’s Bible Belt are aware that they too came as refugees to Canada in the 1920s, and their religious teachings speak of tolerance and love. Any type of anti-migrant movement that seems to be an undercurrent of some Conservatives in other parts of Canada would not be tolerated and would cause Pallister problems if he wants to remain popular in Manitoba.

Manitoba may stand alongside Alberta and Ontario in having one of the strongest Conservative mandates in terms of percentage of the popular vote, but the province takes its moniker “friendly” seriously, and practises a politics that is like its provincial mascot — “steady as she goes.”

It may be a bit dull to outsiders, but for savvy political strategists, it’s what wins government.

This article from Royce Koop, associate professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, and Shannon Sampert, associate professor of Canadian politics, retired, from the University of Winnipeg, originally appeared online on The Conversation.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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