The View from the Centre: Manitoba '08

By Jared Wesley on Sep 12, 2008

While most observers are ignoring ridings between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield, a few in Manitoba may be worth watching over the next few weeks.

Some have characterized Manitoba as the "microcosm" of Canada, with its diverse population and complex matrix of social and cultural cleavages. The province also features many of the same partisan dynamics as the country, on the whole. All three major parties hold seats in the province - the Liberals in central Winnipeg and the north, the New Democrats in north Winnipeg, and the Conservatives in the rural south as well as the capital. And, of Manitoba's fourteen (14) ridings, four (4) are in play in this election. The results of these races may not make a huge difference in the electoral equation, but the campaigns, themselves, may reveal much about the dynamics of the national race.

Winnipeg-South: Conservative Rod Bruinooge is the incumbent, having upset former Liberal cabinet minister, Reg Alcock, in 2006. The Tories have dedicated significant resources toward retaining this seat, as many view Bruinooge as the best candidate to replace Vic Toews as Manitoba's senior minister (should the latter retire following the election). The Liberal candidate is former PC MLA John Loewen, who defected to the federal Grits in 2006, only to lose to Stephen Fletcher in Charleswood-St. James-Assinniboia. It is unclear whether Loewen has enough resources or support to better Alcock's effort two years ago. If the Tories' get-out-the-vote programme is working as well as its architects suggest, the Conservatives should hold this seat. If the Liberals manage to claw it back, the party can demonstrate serious signs of life west of Ontario.

Winnipeg-South-Centre: The Liberals have held this riding since it was reconstituted in 1988, with Anita Neville having inherited the seat from Lloyd Axworthy (1988-2000). The Tories have nominated former Winnipeg football star, Trevor Kennerd, to contest the riding. The race will be interesting for a number of reasons. First, it pits the Liberals' traditional support base versus the Tories' well-oiled, national machine. If there are die-hard Liberals in Manitoba, they live in this riding; and if Conservative war roomers have their eye on picking up a seat in the province, it's focused firmly on South-Centre. Should Dion's popularity slip any lower, Neville will have to rely increasingly on her personal popularity (which is particularly strong within the Winnipeg Jewish community). Under those circumstances, the New Democrat vote (which was 22% in 2004) could prove decisive in terms of siphoning off Liberal support and handing the Tories the seat.

Saint Boniface: Historic home of Winnipeg's Franco-Manitoban community, this riding has been a Liberal stronghold for generations. In play, it is a bellwether for all three national parties. Raymond Simard won the riding by under 2000 votes in 2006 -- a three-way race that saw the Conservatives and NDP poll 35 and 22 percent of the popular vote, respectively. As in South-Centre (and in swing ridings across the country), the New Democrats will play a key role in the Saint Boniface campaign. For their part, the Conservatives have nominated Sgt. Shelly Glover to challenge Simard -- a move that could pay dividends if Harper succeeds in making crime a major issue in the national campaign. As in 1958 and 1984, a Tory victory in Saint Boniface would likely be part of a much broader Conservative breakthrough across the country. (With the exception of a 1978 by-election, the party has only carried Saint Boniface only twice, in that pair of earlier landslides.)

Churchill: This northern Manitoba riding swung to the Liberals in 2006. A rift in the New Democratic party saw incumbent (Independent) Bev Desjarlais (17%) split the vote with NDP candidate Niki Ashton (28%), handing the seat to Liberal Tina Keeper (41%). The Liberals have a history in this riding, having elected Elijah Harper in 1993 and finishing within striking distance of the New Democrats in each of the following three elections. A united NDP will pose a major threat, however, particularly if Layton's national campaign gains momentum.

Overall, these four ridings will offer observers a reasonable barometer of nation-wide dynamics. The role of the NDP as spoilers, the capacity of the Liberals to retain their traditional strongholds, and the ability of the Conservatives to win tight races - all will play themselves out in Manitoba over the coming weeks.

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