The Origins of Autopac: An Essay on the Possibility of Social Democratic Government in Manitoba

By Blaikie, Daniel | Manitoba History, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Origins of Autopac: An Essay on the Possibility of Social Democratic Government in Manitoba


Blaikie, Daniel, Manitoba History


As the title suggests, this article will concern itself with the question of whether or not social democratic government is a real possibility in Manitoba. On the one hand, the question may seem odd. The New Democratic Party (NDP) of Manitoba is a social democratic party. It is currently in power in Manitoba, has governed the province for nearly twenty-five of the last forty years, and will continue governing in Manitoba for the foreseeable future. Clearly if the possibility of social democratic government were defined solely in terms of the electability of social democratic parties, the main question of this essay would be absurd. On the other hand, since the 1980s right up until today, the fundamental insight of democratic socialism--roughly, that a democratically elected government should play an active role in the economy to protect the interest of all members of society, not just a small, elite cross-section thereof--has been losing more and more political currency in Canadian society. (1) Not even social democratic parties have been immune from this phenomenon. Thus by 2001, Doug Smith argues, the NDP government in Manitoba--unlike in the 1970s, where the government "had taken over a number of manufacturing concerns"--found itself in a context where it was unwilling even to consider nationalizing the Versatile tractor plant to save the jobs of the 250 members of CAW local 2224. (2) This was true even though Gary Doer's NDP has been a strong advocate of maintaining existing public infrastructure like Manitoba Hydro, and vigorously fought the privatization of the Manitoba Telephone System in the 1990s.

This does not mean that supporters of democratic socialism have given up on the idea that electing social democratic governments holds value, but it has led to a certain malaise in the social democratic movement. (3) A large part of the problem hinges on how to reconcile the "democratic" component of democratic socialism with the "socialist" component at a time when socialism holds very little popular (and therefore electoral) appeal, and there is as yet no clear way forward. For its part, the current NDP government in Manitoba seems to hold that this question is best contemplated from the government benches--thus erring on the side of populism--than those of the opposition. In the apparent absence of any obvious and politically viable alternative, Manitoba's social democrats have typically--whether tacitly or overtly--endorsed the strategy.

There is a view, however, that says the question of how to reconcile democracy and socialism is unanswerable in principle. James McAllister, the only one to publish a sustained scholarly analysis of an NDP government in Manitoba, maintains that the social democrat faces a dilemma. She must choose either democracy or socialism because parliamentary democracy is inherently conservative and as such, cannot be the vehicle for any major political, social or economic changes. (4) The present article intends to grapple mainly with this claim, by arguing that the implementation of public automobile insurance in Manitoba by the NDP government of Edward Schreyer presents a counterexample to McAllister's thesis. (5) The aim here is not to answer the question of how to reconcile democracy and socialism in the twenty-first century, but simply to establish the legitimacy of the question.

Evidence Against Democratic Socialism

Manitoba's history of social democratic government began in 1969 when on 25 June, Manitobans sent enough NDP candidates to the Legislature to form, with the help of Larry Desjardins, a then independent, ex-Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly, a precarious minority government. With Desjardins' tentative endorsement, Schreyer's government enjoyed the support of twenty-nine MLAs in a fifty-seven seat legislature. If the NDP's victory came as a surprise to the province's establishment, one can hardly blame them. …

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