Category Archives: The Prairies

Election Wrap 2014

On Wednesday October 22, Manitoba voters went to the polls. Lawyer Brian Bowman was elected the mayor of Winnipeg, while Rick Chrest defeated incumbent mayor of Brandon Shari Decter-Hirst. What factors led to the decisions that voters made? How can these results be used to advance a progressive agenda for these two cities?

Background On Winnipeg

After ten years, incumbent Mayor Sam Katz decided to leave public life. He was very unpopular by the end of his mandate, owing to such things as audits around city contracting decisions,problems with frozen pipes and snow clearing, and an unpopular decision to route rapid transit through an empty wetlandfollowing decades of delays on the project. One of Katz’ first acts of office was to cancel construction of a rapid transit line that had been approved by his popular predecessor Glen Murray.

Unfortunately, citizens of Winnipeg were not able to make a completely informed choice. The media tried to pigeonhole the candidates on a rigid left-right axis, with 2010 challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis on the left, and Brian Bowman, Gord Steeves, and Paula Havixbeck on the right. Consequently many forums did not include all candidates, which upset a few people, although a few did include all candidates. here is how they fared:

Up In Front: It’s Lonely At The Top With Nowhere To Go But Down

Judy Wasylycia-Leis was the favourite going into the race. She had name recognition from her previous run, the backing of the NDP and organized labour, and with Katz out of the race, she became the de-facto incumbent mayor. She counted on a vote split on the right and ran a cautious, don’t-rock-the-boat campaign and as the candidate with experience, although she offered a few select planks on issues of affordable housing,accountability, and active transportation. Her campaign team completely missed the surge by Brian Bowman, instead having focused its guns on former councilor Gord Steeves.

With Katz out, Steeves was the presumed standard-bearer for the right end of the spectrum, and the candidate seen as most likely to continue on with Katz’ policies. He ran a classic right-wing campaign, promising a property tax freeze, asset sales, and cancelling the unpopular rapid transit line to the University of Manitoba. The last item in particular he could have capitalized on, but his campaign went badly. He followed the right-wing strategy of avoiding debates put on by community groups. His plan for handling proposed developments sounded like what had been going on under Katz. But the most damaging thing to his campaign were racist comments made by his wife on social media. Disgusting in their own right, they struck a particularly bad note in a racially divided city hurting from mourning the death of homeless hero Faron Hall and murder of Tina Fontaine.His support dropped throughout the campaign, ending in the single digit.

Paula Havixbeck was a more marginal player on the right. A one-time Katz ally and member of his inner circle, she parted ways and became a critic, making a name for herself criticizing deals the city made. It was more a low-key affair focused on issues as infrastructure, snow removal, and 311, and was not able to gather much momentum or big endorsers, and she finished second last.

The Rising Stars

David Sanders, an NDP-affiliated former provincial bureaucrat, was a late entrant in the race. He had a history of attending city hall and asking tough questions. He opposed the rapid transit detour and focused his campaign on the issue of competent public administration. He was not able to gain much support, although he did finish higher than a sitting councilor.

Just as impressive as the mayoral face itself, aboriginal candidate and university administrator Robert Falcon-Ouelette inspired Winnipeg to come together and to dream and hope. He wrapped his campaign around the themes of hope, proposing ideas as moving rail lines outside the city to make way for light rail transit, taxing parking lots as if they were buildings to encourage downtown growth, affordable housing, and making Winnipeg a child friendly city. His personal journey, from homelessness to earning a Ph. D, also inspired people. Without having any formal experience in politics or a formal political machine behind him, he rose to a third place finish when the ballots were counted.

Despite being backed by the Chamber of Commerce (including an endorsement from Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman) Bowman was able to gain support across party lines and to paint himself as a fresh face. Tagged by many to be on the right side of the spectrum, owing in part to his proposal for a municipal sales tax, he out-flanked Wasylycia-Leis on several urban issues of concern to progressives including extend rapid transit throughout Winnipeg by 2030, ending homelessness, opening the intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians, and funding the arts. His proposals were very heavy on dreams and optimism and light on practical steps to achieve them. This turned to his advantage, as Winnipeg voters were tired of being told no and embraced the idea of the city moving forward.

While the result of the race for mayor was not what the left had hoped for, they can take comfort in seeing hard-right councilors Thomas Steen and Grant Nordman go down to defeat. The representation of women also improved slightly, as Janice Lukesand Cindy Gillroy will join Devi Sharma and Jenny Gerbasi. A key test will be whether he follows through on his promise to allow council to elect members of his Cabinet. This cabinet composes almost half the votes in the council chamber, so if elected that removes the ability of the mayor to force votes to go a certain way. Bowman’s self-portrayal as wanting an inclusive government and governing by consensus provides a window of opportunity to advance progressive policies to make Winnipeg the viable city it can become.

Brandon: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Brandon has a history of electing business-friendly mayors, and the election of Chrest returned to that tradition. The NDP-backed incumbent, Shari Decter Hirst, had swept into office in 2010 on the sentiment that Brandon was an “old boy’s club” that wasn’t inclusive of the general citizenry. The overall record of Decter-Hirst’s administration was mixed. There were some worthwhile accomplishments, such as an affordable housing strategy,introducing Sunday bus service, successfully fighting major flooding in 2011 and 2014, and the arrival of regular air service to Brandon’s airport. She was also the subject of several controversies, including an accusation of conflict of interest,threatening a sitting councilor, scandals around failure to pay taxes on businesses she owned, a labour dispute with Brandon firefighters, and a failure to respond to criticisms from increasing property taxes. Even though property taxes were rising in other cities, the raises proved perfect fodder for her critics who wanted to paint her as a “tax-and-spend” NDPer, which hurt her at a time when the NDP government was losing popularity in Manitoba. As she took over from several generations of councils that had held tax increases to the bare minimum, she did not have political cover needed to raise taxes, unlike in Winnipeg where Katz broke a promise not to raise taxes in his last term. Chrest had an uninspiring platform, instead running on a back-to-basics approach, and on his reputation as a popular businessman. It worked for Chrest. Decter-Hirst ran an ambitious campaign, but Chrest’s popularity combined with her controversies cost her dearly, and she was handily defeated in all corners of Brandon.

Brandon council is a different story. Incumbent councilor Jan Chaboyer was joined by newcomers Vanessa Hamilton and Lonnie Patterson to elect a total of 3 women in an 11-member chamber, one of the best results for woman representation in recent history. Chrest spoke often of the need for teamwork, and has expressed a desire to speak with each councilor to help set priorities for the next session. This allows a window of opportunity for progressive issues to be addressed by a business-friendly council, and if taken advantage of, can leave this mayor and council with many worthwhile accomplishments beyond what the mayor-elect campaigned on.

Courtship, Politics, and Breaking Old Cycles

Well, federal election time is likely approaching again. Even Paul Wells has something to say about it. If you think I’m jumping the gun on this, let me remind my fellow Canadians that we are in a volatile minority situation with a wide assortment of somewhat alluring parties. But despite the many choices we have, Canada seems to get its collective head set on only two big vote chasers. Allow me to be more precise:

Canada is an amazing, diversified, and rich nation. It’s a pillar of diplomacy and humanity on the world stage (at least that’s what I like to believe). As a modern First World nation, it’s simply ripe with choice. The choices are simply endless! Canada IS a catch! But when it comes to choosing our political leaders and parties – and to that end, choosing the ever important course and direction of this great, rich, and responsible nation – we are, more or less, always forming a government with two major parties (the Liberals and Conservatives) pulling the strings and sweet talking us into submission. How in the world did that happen? For the record (and just in case you haven’t noticed), I think choosing our partners in life and our political parties are on a par (or at least are an analogy).

So, before we get wrapped up in all that pre-election courting again, let’s briefly recap the main singles:

On the right of the bar, we have our traditional and guarded Conservatives, or as I like to call them, The Cons – because that’s essentially what I think on the rare moments I listen to them speak. They’re an ambitious bunch of right wingers – always leaving me with the question, “Have I stepped inside a time machine and been hooked up on a blind date with the quintessential caveman?” No, the Cons aren’t really doing it for me. The Cons are the ‘party du jour’ at the moment – it’s a fleeting thing, I pray.

On the left of the bar, we have the unyielding New Democrat Party. They are, believe it or not, very available. You’ve probably heard of them, though many Canadians have avoided NDP wooing as if a vote for the NDP would make you instantly ‘un-cool’. And that’s a shame, but more on that in a moment.

In addition to these two (what I would call) ‘rival suitors’, Canada is blessed with three other large parties scattered all over the bar:.

One is the ever-popular Liberal Party of Canada – the unofficial ‘cool’ party that leans wholeheartedly left at one instant, and leans unswervingly right in the next moment, and leans left again, and, well… are you following me? Thus the popularity, I assume. The Liberal Party is the ultimate chameleonic cavalier. However, the Liberals are in a bit of a slump and nursing a broken heart and leader at the moment. This Liberal party just isn’t doing it for me either, to be totally honest. It just isn’t clear enough in its goals and lately the party leaves me with that feeling of: “Did someone just bamboozle my booty?” I think you can relate.

Next, we have The Green Party – a party of… well I’m still trying to figure them out, but they are there and they are, apparently, green. They tend to show up lightly on the radar screen during elections. But those Greens are moving up in the world and we must give credit where credit is due. They are enticing and even sprouting in my eyes, but still a little wet behind the ears.

And finally, we have the Bloc Québécois, a party that seems to be mainly concerned with Quebec more so than any other.part of the nation, but still manages to be a major player AND shaker on the Canadian political stage. However, the Bloc is somewhat unapproachable and long-distance things never work out for me anyway.

So, there you go: five large parties in Canada all promising us the universe. And what luck! On top of those five, we even have a bunch of smaller parties to choose from. It’s quite a selection. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we have a considerably assorted potluck of parties to choose from. Granted, I WOULD NOT go so far as to say that we have la crème-de-la-crème of buffets. Still, not too bad, eh?

And yet, with all these choices we have, we still can’t seem to dump the two incorrigibles that I think break our hearts and trust the most. But there are plenty of eligible parties out there…

Take the NDP: Here’s a party that has done fairly well for several elections, as the results from elections from 1962-2006 show on Wikipedia . However, this particular party never seems to really obtain our affections. I honestly can’t understand how that happens considering that the NDP is aligned with many Canadians on many issues. At least that’s what I keep hearing. But perhaps the NDP IS more tightly aligned with most Canadians than we care to accept or acknowledge – the near-perfect match. Thus, the NDP is like that prospective partner who looks good on paper, wants desperately to prove his or her faithfulness and attentiveness, has virtually everything in common with us, but never gets a date. In essence, the NDP loves Canada, but many Canadians don’t love the NDP back. The NDP is simply the rejected fellow – the “nice guy” you shun because he’s the nice guy! But why do we continuously reject a party such as the NDP? Are we really so repulsed by or afraid of it? I’d have to say yes. As proof, I will offer up the following:

A quick search on Wikipedia can easily show the results of our elections dating back to 1867. Our list of elected leaders and parties reads like a dance card between the Cons and the Liberals. (Okay… the NDP haven’t been in the social scene for many of those years, but…) We might as well be stateside with results like that! We barely even mingle with the other eligible parties – nice or not. Are we suffering from some sort of ‘political love-hate relationship’, unable to break free from the same old good-for-nothings, and unwilling to flirt with something new? That’s not a healthy cycle, Canada.

I understand, though. With all the choices we have in the world today, sometimes we just get our hearts and heads stuck on one familiar thing. “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”, right? But like any cycle, it’s not going to change unless we make it change. And, in my opinion, constantly electing the same two parties into power is not really utilizing our power of choice to the fullest. Where’s the competition in this market? No wonder the talent pools and ideas never get any better! So I have to ask: How much do we really know about the perpetually neglected parties? And how much of what we hear and read is fact? Only you can answer question one. But I can take a brief shot at question two:

Since the NDP is roughly the equivalent of the un-cool, unpopular, and repeatedly rejected admirer, I think it might be a good example once again. Perhaps the characterizations and myths are what hold us back from voting NDP. It’s been repeatedly said to me that the NDP is far too fiscally irresponsible. I’ve heard folks say that the NDP would run the country into the ground with excess taxes and too many social services. That’s some truly amazing assumptions considering we’ve never really had a full taste of the NDP on the federal level. How do we even know exactly how they will perform as the top dog? When I visit the NDP’s Issues Page, I get a whole different feel for how this party would treat the nation and that feeling contradicts these characterizations I’ve heard. The NDP seems responsible — and rather family oriented. So, how come we never tune out the negative assumptions and give that party our number? Hell, we do it often enough for the Liberals and Conservatives no matter how many times they let us down!

At any rate, I’m not suggesting that the NDP or any other party holds the answers to our dreams – it’s a dishevelled potluck, remember, not an elegant buffet of choices – but how can they, or any other smaller party be any worse than the scandal-filled, fallen Liberals and the muzzled, old fashioned Cons? And just like finding the best healthy relationship in our personal lives, don’t we also owe it to our country to find the best party to look out for us at home? We still aren’t there yet and that’s what keeps bothering me.

Personally, I think we really need to re-evaluate our goals as a nation. What are we really looking for in a political party? And can we afford in the long term to ignore the parties we’ve always ignored? There could be something really good out there if we could just stop falling for the same old heartbreakers. And Canada really does need to stop this cycle. We need to start moving together in a direction that’s healthy for all of us. Besides, election time is coming and like it or not, we have to make a decision sooner or later. Perhaps it’s time for us to explore the possibilities now and throw caution and myths to the wind. As my mother always says, “Out with the old, and in with the new!” And as the old proverb goes: “Better late than never.”