NDP urged to reconnect with rural Manitoba

The party finished in a distant second to the PCs in recent election, and former MLA says it must make drastic changes

The New Democratic Party will not return to power in Manitoba if it can’t find a way to connect with rural voters, says a former NDP MLA who represented the Interlake for 17 years.

Manitoba went to the polls Sept. 10 and the NDP finished a distant second to the Progressive Conservatives.

Premier Brian Pallister and the PC party won 36 seats, double the 18 seats won by the NDP. The Liberals won the three remaining seats in the legislature.

The Tories easily returned to power, mostly because of NDP weakness in rural parts of the province. The PCs won every constituency in agricultural parts of Manitoba — stretching from Swan River in the northwest to Steinbach in the southeast.

That’s a drastic change from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, when the NDP routinely won seats in rural Manitoba and were in power for about 30 of the last 50 years.

“The NDP will not form government (again) until they have a good rural and agricultural strategy. To me, that goes without saying,” said Tom Nevakshonoff, who represented the NDP in the Interlake from 1999 to 2016.

Nevakshonoff, who lives near Poplarfield, Man., said the party has strayed too far from its traditions and no longer appeals to ordinary Manitobans.

If it wants to regain rural voters, it needs to emphasize good governance and sensible policies.

“Wab (Kinew) may be an interesting leader (for the NDP), in terms of what’s in vogue today, which seems to be identity politics, (but) when it comes down to governing, you have to get down to the nuts and bolts of things.”

The NDP held power in Manitoba from 1999 to 2016 and enacted a number of policies and regulations that angered farmers:

  • A ban on cosmetic pesticide use, featuring a news release implying anyone who uses pesticides is trying to poison children.
  • A ban on the construction of hog barns and blaming hog producers for excessive nutrient flows into Lake Winnipeg.

“(It’s) extremely disappointing to see the government attack the industry and accuse it of dumping hog manure in the lake,” Karl Kynoch said in 2011 when he was Manitoba Pork Council chair.

Despite those policies and a slew of other agricultural regulations, Nevakshonoff said the NDP government was not anti-agriculture.

“Our government, that I was a member of for 16 years, I wouldn’t characterize us, at all, as hostile to business,” he said.

“I was a rural MLA and I was a farmer myself. I would never characterize agriculture as irresponsible or some massive threat to the environment.”

One major problem for the NDP in rural regions is the perception that it only cares about urban voters.

Just prior to the Sept. 10 election, Pallister exploited that perception to fire up his rural supporters.

“I’m proud to tell you that yesterday we were outside the Perimeter (Highway around Winnipeg), and the day before too, because the people outside the Perimeter have dreams just like the people inside it do.”

Nevakshonoff has heard similar comments from dozens of rural Manitobans.

“Not only do I hear it, but I agree with that assessment,” he said.

“I hate to say that … (but) I think the NDP has to think outside the box (of) Winnipeg.”

To regain the trust of rural voters, the NDP needs pragmatic solutions for issues in small towns across the province.

For instance, many towns have aging hockey rinks and community centres. Those buildings should be retro-fitted so that they become energy efficient.

“What’s the most expensive thing for your local hockey rink? It’s insurance costs and energy costs — heating,” he said.

“Why can’t a provincial government or a party advocate for some sort of conversion to greener (heating) options?”

However, if the NDP sticks with identity politics and ignores the concerns of regular people, the “disconnect” with rural voters will continue, Nevakshonoff said.

“When we swing too far to the left, which I think we’ve done now, we become almost a fringe party,” he said.

“That may not be the most popular assessment, but I’m a realist. I know that NDP governments form power in this province when they come back down to earth and … focus on things that matter to people.”

NDP premiers in Manitoba

  • In 1969, Ed Schreyer was elected first NDP premier of Manitoba. The party was in power until 1977
  • 1981-88, Howard Pawley
  • 1999-2009, Gary Doer

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