Gary Doer's Manitoba

By Gonick, Cy | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Gary Doer's Manitoba


Gonick, Cy, Canadian Dimension


With his May 22 election victory, Gary Doer is only the second premier in recent Manitoba history to win three consecutive majority governments. The first was Duff Roblin back in the 1960s. In fact, since the election of Ed Schreyer in 1969, the New Democratic Party has been in office for all but a dozen years of the past four decades--nearly enough to consider the NDP Manitoba's natural governing party.

In general terms the secret of NDP electoral success here has been to do just enough to sustain support from the province's working class and poor, while avoiding major confrontation with its business class such as would scare off large numbers of middle-class voters.

The dilution of social-democratic principles did not come so easily to Doer's predecessors, Ed Schreyer and Howard Pawley. Doer, on the other hand, is a quintessential small-"l" liberal. The man doesn't have a socialist bone in his body, a characterization he would enthusiastically endorse.

Doer has led Manitoba's New Democrats for nearly two decades--enough time for him to reshape the party in his image. The NDP here has, to a large extent, become Manitoba's liberal party, almost wiping out the hapless Grits. It has also been adroit in taking on Conservative issues like tax cuts and fighting crime, leaving the Tories with little to campaign on. As Donne Flanagan, a top official in the premier's office, has admitted in writing, Today's NDP, as the party likes to call itself, follows a strategy of "inoculating" itself against criticism from its traditional foes.

Business Comes First

The high place accorded business can be illustrated by an incident occurring early on in Doer's first mandate. In 1972 under Ed Schreyer, the provincial government created the Manitoba Hog Producers Marketing Board with single-desk selling powers. Any packer who wanted to purchase hogs had to buy from that single-desk seller. This collective-bargaining power had been a long-standing demand of hog producers. To entice Maple Leaf Foods to build a hundred-million-dollar hog-packing plant in the province, Gary Filmon's Conservative government terminated single-desk selling back in 1996. In opposition, the NDP had promised to restore it, so farmers were optimistic that an injustice would soon be reversed when the NDP returned to office in 1999. When asked by a Winnipeg Free Press reporter about it, however, the premier said it would never be restored because he had promised Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain that there would be no return to single-desk marketing in Manitoba.

A second incident in its first mandate further confirms that this government would not introduce reforms that did not have the blessing of Manitoba business. Under pressure from Manitoba's labour movement to reverse some restrictive legislation introduced by the previous Tory administration, the government brought in some amendments to the Labour Relations Act. Mild as they were, they caused the business community to fume, extracting from Doer a pledge to consult with it and seek consensus on all matters that might impact on business.

This promise Doer has kept, including the modest changes introduced to the Employment Standards Act and tepid increases to the minimum wage. As one NDP insider I spoke with in preparing this article told me, Doer has managed to "disarm" the business community. Business leaders I consulted with agreed that, aside from taxes (they conceded he had lowered them, but not enough) and not doing enough to eliminate Manitoba's status as a have-not province dependent on equalization payments, they had little complaint with his administration.

On the contrary, they applauded several of his initiatives: his promotion of immigration that restocks the province's labour pool; his support of new hydro dams in Manitoba's north; his promotion of the north-south NAFTA highway corridor connecting Manitoba to Mexico; and his financial support for the new hockey/entertainment arena on the Portage Avenue site once occupied by Eaton's. …

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