Roads and elections

Opening up the government purse strings is an age-old signal of an impending election. Within Manitoba, it is accepted convention that new spending announcements herald the commence by the ruling government of its re-election bid.

For example, the editor of the Emerson Journal wrote in March 1914; “Three weeks ago the (Sir Rodmond) Roblin government kindly donated or inflicted on us a party of surveyors and this week they sent a party of twelve telephone men. The telephone service has been on the hummer here for at least two years that we know of and it’s as if the powers that be have just found out about it. Elections are undoubtedly coming off soon if present indications mean anything.” 

The newspaper was right. Manitobans went to the polls on July 10, 1914, and the Conservatives under Roblin eked out a 25-21 seat victory over the Liberals under T.C. Norris. Just two years later, Norris would lead his party to election victory.

The “present indications” are that the NDP is sending out its own “surveyors” to make sure at least some Manitoba roads are improved before an anticipated spring or fall 2007 election.

Premier Gary Doer is well aware that motorists shaking, rattling and rolling along Manitoba’s roadways aren’t happy voters and that’s why his government recently announced $29 million more for road improvements, bringing its total commitment for this year to $257 million.

To come up with the extra funding, the government dipped into the province’s rainy day fund, another sure sign that Doer is gearing up for the NDP’s re-election bid. Taking money from the rainy day fund only raises the hackles of the Opposition and business. On the other hand, when it goes to improving some of the province’s worst roads, voters are more forgiving. 

Thus politically it isn’t such a great gamble. The government must ensure that Manitobans are getting a bang for their buck and that voters see some tangible results such as a smooth ride when driving down the highway, especially the roller-coaster ride on Hwy. 75. The state of the major highway leading to the United States from Winnipeg has been the cause of severe criticizism. The highway is called a nightmare for drivers. 

The Manitoba Trucking Association is among the more vocal critics of Hwy. 75, saying the highway is a virtually impassable bone-jarring experience.

Hwy. 75 is paramount to the Manitoba exports to the U.S. (Although a specific export value isn’t available for Hwy. 75 alone, it is estimated that Manitoba exports more than $9 million annually along its highways.) The highway’s deplorable condition is not only seen as an embarrassment to the province, but also a drag on the province’s economy. 

Even with an infusion of more money, Mike Mager, the president of CAA Manitoba, told the Sun that it’s not a huge amount of money and isn’t really going to buy much.

If he’s right, that’s bad news for the NDP, since recent polls indicate infrastructure is a top concern of Manitoba voters. Still, by at least giving the impression that it is trying to address this issue, the Doer government may also be placating voters. 

Studies indicate that at least another $300 million to $400 million is needed annually over the next 10 years to bring Manitoba’s roads to an adequate standard. That’s a far cry from the $257 million the province has allocated for 2006.

The Manitoba Heavy Construction Association said the provincial highway debt has risen from $1.8 billion when the Doer government took power to around $4 

billion today. The association is of the opinion that the annual highway construction budget should be increased by at least $350 million for 10 years in keeping with the government’s own 2020 — Manitoba Transport Vision Report. 

The MHCA also wants the provincial government to press Ottawa into accepting full responsibility for Trans-Canada Highway maintenance and reconstruction projects. If this was a possible outcome of negotiations between the federal government and the provinces, not having to pay for their portion of the Trans-Canada would free up millions of dollars to each province for improvements to highway systems. But, that’s a pipe dream since Ottawa holds a tight fist around most of the money it raises from fuel taxes. 

The $600 million annually given to all Canadian municipal governments ($167 million for Manitoba municipalities over five years) for infrastructure improvements is just a small percentage of what the federal government earns at the pumps in taxes. 

According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Ottawa collects $4.25 billion a year in gas taxes (10 cents a litre) alone and $1.8 billion from the “tax-on-a-tax” six-per-cent GST on all retail gas sales, which is up $400 million from 2005. From this total, an estimated $120 million is given each year to all the provinces for highway construction.

To be fair to the Manitoba government, it does use the just over $200 million it raises from its 11.5-cent per litre fuel tax for road improvements. 

Recent polls show the potential for a neck-and-neck race between the NDP and the Conservatives under newly-elected leader Hugh McFadyen.

When the Doer-led NDP took the 2003 election, they won 35 seats to the Conservatives’ 20 and the Liberals’ two seats. It was the best-ever provincial election result for the NDP. The Howard Pawley-led NDP in 1981 captured one fewer seat.

The NDP has been in power since 1999. Prior to its election loss, the Tories under Gary Filmon had been in power since 1988. Conventional wisdom explained the loss as the result of Manitoba voters wanting change and  the NDP presen ting a viable option.

Despite some polls showing a relatively close level of popularity among voters for the NDP and Tories, plenty can change between now and 2007. And McFadyen’s surge in popularity may just reflect his new status — an invariable outcome of a well-publicized leadership race. 

In its favour, the NDP government has the advantage of a strong economy and high employment. The most recent road announcement may only be its way of shoring up voter confidence in the government as it heads toward an election.