Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 26, 2016
“There are no sacred cows,” Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said as he hinted at things to come should his party win the provincial election on April 19.
In taking on those untouchable portfolios, Mr. Pallister seems to have put every aspect of non-essential government services on notice that changes will take place under a Tory government.
The main basis of those “sacred cows” are thought to come from health care, education and social programming, although Pallister would not go to the lengths of calling for full-scale cuts. All three are more likely to become the target of retooling as opposed to restructuring under a Tory government.
Pallister choosing to target “sacred cows” presents a wealth of opportunity and sound bites for the NDP, and hands content to their election machine to go to work on.
For the past two decades, the New Democrats have positioned themselves well by scaring voters into the belief that sweeping cuts would take place should anyone but them form government.
We saw it when they chased former Tory leader Hugh McFadyen out of town, we saw it in each and every session of the legislature where the NDP worked to conjure ghosts of the ghastly Gary Filmon years, and we continue to see it with their constant attempts to tie Pallister to his time as an MLA in the much-maligned Filmon government of the late 1990s.
Every time this government has been pressed by opposition parties to examine its skeletons, the rhetoric ramps up, haunting Manitobans with the thought of how dreadful this province may become should voters change their ways.
There are moral issues with scare tactic politics, but they are often highly effective — and it would appear, in the short term at least, another PC leader has taken the bait.
At a time when the Progressive Conservatives should be actively trying to soften their leadership image and run an incumbent-like campaign, they are being dragged under the bridge by giving the NDP ammunition to portray their party as a slash-happy government-in-waiting. They are allowing others to churn their rhetoric about Mr. Pallister’s “true plan” for Manitobans.
The NDP clearly wants the conversation to shift to the belief that the hard-line thoughts of past Tory governments would once again exist should they be elected. The strategy of goading the lead candidate to react will benefit the NDP, and the PCs may end up regretting taking the bait.
By insuring they control the messaging, the New Democrats can effectively shift the focus of the campaign, and at this point they would be immensely happy to do just that.
The last thing this government wants is to make the 2016 election a referendum on NDP leadership or unkept promises. Whether it is the PST increase, growing infrastructure deficit, issues with health care and wait times, or the open challenge to Premier Greg Selinger’s leadership, there is plenty of opportunity to undermine the party.
Instead, we are reminded that the NDP is at its strongest when railing on about the Filmon years. McFadyen could never shake his tie to the Filmon government. Eventually the man who could have been premier left politics to accept a private-sector job out of province, and it is something the NDP would love to see happen to his successor.
If Pallister keeps to his promise, then it is not about outright cuts, but more of a reining in of inefficiencies in the province. Some belt-tightening clearly would make sense as we have for decades far exceeded our funds. Austerity isn’t always a bad thing, and the short-term pain may open the doors to some long-term prosperity, especially if a level of service is maintained.
Furthermore, should Pallister be able to follow through on his process of making departments within government more efficient, then it is likely to be welcomed by Manitobans.
The NDP strategy to play up Pallister’s “sacred cows” will not put the election in jeopardy for the Conservatives, but it could be enough to turn a strong majority into a weak one.
Or worse yet, should the messaging stick, turn their hopes of a solid mandate into a minority government.