Can Pallister escape the Harper trap?

It’s a big problem, with little time to fix it.

For the past 18 months, Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister and his MLAs have devoted a great deal of time and energy toward dispelling the Selinger government’s accusation that the Manitoba Tories are a collection of fiscal hawks and social intolerants who neither understand nor care about the needs of minorities, aboriginals and the poor; that a Pallister government would impose austerity measures that would cost thousands of civil servants, teachers and nurses their jobs, depriving Manitoba families of services they desperately need.

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The Tory leader and his caucus has worked hard to present a more moderate, tolerant, caring face to voters. They regularly communicate their concern over the plight of children in care, environmental issues, the performance of Manitoba’s education system, and the quality and availability of health care. They have reached out to women’s groups and a multitude of ethnic organizations throughout the province, and now have a large percentage of women and minorities on the list of nominated PC candidates.

It has been a credible effort to broaden the party’s appeal in advance of next April’s provincial election, but all that work is now jeopardized by what occurred during the just-ended federal election campaign.

Just 37 per cent of votes cast in Manitoba went to Conservative Party candidates on October 19, but the percentage was much lower in Winnipeg, where the federal party lost six seats. It was a resounding rejection of the Harper Tories’ platform --  including “old stock Canadians”, insensitivity toward refugees, a niqab ban and a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line -- in a vote-rich area of the province where the Manitoba Tories must win seats next April.

Last week, Pallister dismissed the suggestion his party should be concerned about the federal election results, arguing “Manitobans understand the difference between the two levels of government.” That is undoubtedly true, but his response skates past two facts: Manitoba’s voters correctly regard provincial Progressive Conservatives and federal Conservatives as largely the same group of people and, second, Manitoba Tories, including PC MLAs, were campaigning for niqab bans, refugee quotas and snitch lines just last week.

With a caucus and membership base that openly supported those policies, how does Pallister reassure this province’s voters -- especially Winnipeggers who voted for Liberal candidates on Monday -- that a government under his leadership would not implement policies similar to those advocated by the Harper campaign?

How does he respond to the accusation, made by both New Democrats and Manitoba Liberals, that the overt support of divisive elements of the Harper Conservatives’ platform by many of his MLAs and party members is proof his party is neither moderate, tolerant nor inclusive?

There are no easy answers here, but hoping Manitobans don’t connect the dots between the Harper Conservatives’ platform and the beliefs of Tories throughout the province is a mistake that is doomed to fail. Pallister’s unambiguous, public rejection of the intolerant, divisive aspects of the Harper platform is required. It will likely offend some in his caucus and many party members, but it must be done.

Next, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives (not just MLAs, but also party members) must stop fighting the election that is over and start thinking about the one that is coming. That includes remembering that federal Liberal voters are the swing voters who decide which party wins Manitoba provincial elections.

Finally, a distinct change in tone is also required. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the Harper government’s belligerent approach to politics, in favoring of a more positive, collaborative style. Pallister and his MLAs would be wise to adopt a far less aggressive posture, particularly during question period sessions. Insults, yelling and finger-pointing must be replaced by a measured tone that conveys maturity, respect and confidence that a Progressive Conservative government would address Manitoba’s problems in a thoughtful, measured manner.

The recent election results represent a serious test of Pallister’s skill as party leader, and also of his suitability to serve as premier of Manitoba. He must craft a compromise between the convictions of his party’s supporters and the expectations of Manitobans. The result of April’s provincial election could hinge on his ability to do so.
 

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