WINNIPEG – Manitoba politicians returned to the Legislature last week with more on their minds than the daily business of running the province.
With a slim one-seat majority, Manitoba premier Gary Filmon and the Progressive Conservatives entered what is widely believed to be the last legislative session before a provincial election.
In its April 7 throne speech the government promised to get tough with young offenders, a popular message to voters in a province besieged by car thefts.
In Winnipeg, an average of 17 cars are stolen daily, and residents in some rural communities have started nightly patrols to nab would-be car nappers. One Manitoba farmer has reportedly installed a baby monitor in his garage to protect his vehicles.
Punishment for violent crimes
The government plans to deny underage criminals the right to a driver’s licence. It is also considering wilderness “boot camps” as a means of reforming minors convicted of violent crimes.
In other moves, the government promised to consult with parents on education reforms and to continue focusing on small business as the engine of economic growth.
Rural residents will get help fighting trade harassment from the United States, and in promoting Manitoba food products, extending natural gas services to more rural communities and improved distance education services.
Political observers say the throne speech sets a pre-election agenda that avoids controversy.
“I think he’s trying to pick up on some symbolic issues like violent crime,” said University of Winnipeg political scientist Jim Silver. “But I don’t think he wants to do much of anything.”
Expected in the fall
Although Filmon legally has until September 1995 to call a vote, political parties are preparing for a fall call to the polls. And with three parties represented in the Legislature, the manoeuvring for public support has already started.
The Filmon government has 29 seats in the 57-seat house. The New Democratic Party under leader Gary Doer has 21 seats and the Liberals led by Paul Edwards have seven.
That creates a tight situation for Filmon who must count heads and assess backbencher loyalties carefully before calling major votes. His predecessor, NDP premier Howard Pawley, was defeated in1988 when a renegade backbencher voted against his party’s budget.
The slim hold on power Manitoba voters have given successive governments since the mid-1980s reflects an electorate that is split along cultural and social-economic lines.
“It reflects long-term conflicts that have their origins in the class differences and ethnic differences that go back as far as the 1919 General Strike,” Silver said.
It makes the results of this coming election a toss-up, he said.
The Conservatives took power in a minority government in 1988. They captured a majority in 1990 with 30 seats. But that hold on power slipped in byelections held in the fall of 1992, when the number of Conservative seats fell to 29.
Silver said Manitobans don’t appear ready to fully embrace the Conservatives this time either – largely because of their approach to cutting spending and revamping the health care and education systems.
Despite Filmon’s personal popularity, the party has adopted a hard-line approach on key social issues, Silver said.
Funding to inner-city schools has dropped to the level where divisions are considering cutting nursery schools and lunch programs for students from low income families. Meanwhile funds granted to private school have increased.
The “Filmon Fridays” – 10 days of unpaid holidays imposed on the province’s 18,000 civil servants last year – angered workers.
Taxpayers pay more
While the government has adopted the battlecry of no new taxes, reductions in spending have resulted in increased costs to taxpayers through user fees, reduced tax credits and larger municipal and local education tax bills.
Silver said the fortunes of the other two parties will rest on whether they can offer a convincing alternative.
A recent poll published in a Winnipeg newspaper said the Liberals are leading with public approval at 36 percent. The Conservatives follow closely with 35 percent while the New Democrats trail at 22 percent.
Silver said the provincial Liberals are basking in the popularity of the federal ChrŽtien government, but the party is hampered by having a new face at the helm. Paul Edwards was elected to replace retiring leader Sharon Carstairs last fall.
As well, 38 percent of the Manitobans polled were undecided. Traditionally, undecided voters in Manitoba have voted against the party in power, he said.