Manitoba NDP Chooses New Premier

According to the business media, Manitoba Finance Minister Greg Salinger, 58, became NDP provincial Leader and Premier-elect by defeating a challenger from the left, MLA Steve Ashton, 53. “Race for top job in Manitoba pits centre against left”, read a headline in the Toronto Star.

Not so, according to long-time socialist Harry Paine. He was one of the 2003 delegates who packed the Winnipeg Convention Centre on October 17 for the party leadership vote. The difference wasn’t left versus right. The issue was who is best able to keep the labour-based NDP in government in Manitoba, the prairie province (population 1.2 million) just north of Minnesota and North Dakota.

In a report to the NDP Socialist Caucus, Paine wrote:

“More significant for anyone attempting to gauge the level of consciousness of the NDP membership and consequently how that reflects the consciousness of Manitobans was the fact that the first candidate out of the gate, Andrew Swan (a younger Cabinet minister) chose to drop out of the race after a couple of weeks. There was some speculation that the Third Way (neo-liberal) machine that had been running the party for the last couple of decades had been grooming Swan to wear the mantle of Gary Doer (the 10-year Premier who left office to become Canada’s ambassador to the United States), but the first few NDP delegate selection meetings indicated a much stronger intervention by community activists and Swan was unable to get more than a handful of delegate supporters.

“In the few short weeks of the campaign leading up to the delegate selection meetings the membership more than doubled and therein was the first serious controversy. The Steve Ashton campaign was accused of signing up hundreds of new members from within ethnic communities, many of whom had little or no real loyalty to the NDP. This raised the whole question of voting process and the ugly head of ‘One Member, One Vote’ arose once again.

“Ashton tried to present as the more traditional left candidate, but surrounded himself with some questionable and opportunistic public face supporters. The Chair of his campaign committee was maverick City Councillor Russ Wyatt who has joined, and quit, the party depending on his need for assistance from the NDP electoral machine. Main union support came from the Firefighters Union, which is often just as comfortable supporting Tory candidates as it is backing the NDP.

“Greg Selinger was able to garner support from a much wider sector of the working-class organizations that included almost all of the MLAs, the Manitoba Federation of Labour, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives staff and most of the constituencies’ traditional activists. He was seen as a leader who could bring the party together into the ‘Renewal’ mode.

“Before being elected to the Legislature, Selinger had a history of being a popular City Councillor and a key contributor to CHO!CES, a coalition of leftist independent community activists. As Finance Minister he has brought in ten fairly progressive and balanced budgets and was seen as largely responsible for Manitoba being relatively able to fend off the effects of the current global financial crisis. He also instituted an open community consultative process in the period leading up to budget production.

“’Renewal’ was the slogan adopted by the Provincial Executive going into this Leadership Campaign and that was probably an accurate choice as the departure of Doer marks a shift to a greater involvement of community based influences in the party and the government. How that will reflect itself in policy is hard to say at this time.

“Poverty is still a big issue in Manitoba especially in much of the rural farm areas, for those on a fixed income, and in almost all of the First Nations reserves and communities. At the same time there is a shortage of skilled labour and fairly dramatic population growth. While the effects of the latest crisis of Capitalism have not been felt as much in Manitoba as other provinces there is considerable nervousness and discussion among those looking for answers.

“Community activism that doesn’t pose a clear socialist alternative is little more than a band-aid solution to cover the open sores of Capitalism and make life a little more tolerable. On the positive side there is a growing consciousness that there needs to be a fundamental structural change in the distribution of wealth in society. Interest is renewed in the lessons of the past, and Marxism is very much on the discussion agenda.”

I asked Harry Paine about grass roots involvement. He responded, “Activists in Manitoba are not so much in political party life, as they are involved in community organizations. I think that is becoming somewhat universal as capitalism declines dramatically; the working class has to rely more on its defensive organizations. The challenge for socialists is how do we integrate the transitional demands of a socialist program into the pragmatic concerns of these defensive community organizations?

“Manitoba has one of the highest rates of volunteerism in North America. One in three Manitobans volunteer in their community. Of course that includes sports coaches and Girl Guide leaders, but there are huge numbers who are working with the homeless, the aged, in food banks, and so on.

“These people often support the NDP because it is a lot easier to get grants and legislation passed with them than it was with the Tories in government. The fact that community representatives are listened to and consulted does more to keep our membership figures up than anything.

“For instance, I am President of the Manitoba Society of Seniors, was appointed by the Cabinet to the Council on Aging as an advisor to the Minister and on the Boards of half a dozen other community-based organizations and as such have access to all the relevant Ministers and their departments even though I am constantly reminding people that I am a Trotskyist, and believe the only real answer is to overthrow capitalism.

“Last year I was the Campaign Manager for our MLA Rob Altemeyer and ran the most successful campaign, next to Greg Selinger’s in St. Boniface. I publish an on-line community newsletter that goes to most of the local NDP members once or twice a week, which has some pretty radical stuff in it sometimes, and I have never been challenged because of my leftist slant. Actually I get lots of fan mail from people who think that is the strength of the NDP riding association.

“In spite of his popularity, Gary Doer was seen as being inaccessible and out of touch with this growing and powerful sector of activists. There are some members who are concerned and upset because they feel abandoned by big daddy, but most members feel honoured that he was chosen as ambassador and will do a good job. Then again, there are a lot of us who believe that either there (Washington), or in the (appointed Canadian) Senate, is where Doer properly belongs.”

What about Ashton’s so-called leftist stance, including his pledge to freeze/reduce university tuition and ban strikebreakers?

“Ashton’s base was to some extent in the northern areas of the province where he comes from, although Selinger cut into that with support from First Nations’ delegates. Community activists seem to be divided into those who basically support the NDP and those who stand aside and are somewhat cynical about politics; the latter provided the main active base of Ashton’s support. Some were traditional leftists, but for the most part were an unprincipled combination.

“As for his ‘left’ policies, for the most part it was seen as posturing. It is easy to talk about strikebreaking legislation in a province that hasn’t seen a scab situation in years and where strikes that last more than a few days are pretty rare. Unions haven’t suggested anti-scab legislation and only the Firefighters and the Steelworkers from Thompson (the area Ashton represents in the Legislature) supported him. The main bulk of the Manitoba Federation of Labour supported Selinger. Students were divided about 52/48 for Selinger. I don’t think they really believed Ashton was serious about his program.”

The Manitoba NDP convention was over in three short hours; no policy debate, no election of officers. The leadership vote was Selinger 1,317 and Ashton 685. The regular annual party provincial convention will occur in the Spring. By then, in the face of the deepening global economic crisis, the direction of the new NDP Premier may be clear. The question is: what will the new crop of Manitoba NDP members have to say about it? –Barry Weisleder