Chicken in every pot

If Manitobans re-elect the Doer NDP government on May 22, they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded with “a chicken in every pot.”

During last Monday evening’s Provincial Leaders Forum at the Franco-manitobain Cultural Centre, Premier Gary Doer accused his two main rivals of promising to put “a chicken in every pot,” because he felt Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen and Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard were making spending and tax cut promises with “reckless” abandon.

“People can’t be bought with their own money,” said the premier at the forum sponsored by the WinnipegREALTORS® Association and the Manitoba Real Estate Association. “Not all tax cuts are affordable and not all are doable.”

NDP party officials have said that the Conservative tax and spending promises are approaching the $1-billion mark. To emphasize his accusation that McFadyen’s promises are “reckless,” Doer challenged the Conservative Leader by asking if he would be firing doctors or nurses in the province should he become premier.

Doer’s reference to American presidents didn’t end with the oft-cited — though distorted over time — “chicken in every pot” quote attributed to Herbert Hoover during the 1928 U.S. presidential election campaign. The NDP Leader said the tax cuts and spending promises made by his opponents, especially McFadyen’s, were similar to the economic policy of U.S. President George W. Bush, whom he said has run up huge deficits as a result of his own “reckless” tax cuts and spending.

Doer talked tough on tax cuts, citing the NDP’s thus far slow and steady cuts to business and personal income taxes as being the more affordable options. When he attacked his opponents’ proposals for education tax reform, he drew the first round of applause from the audience. 

In reality, both Gerrard and McFadyen have better platforms with regard to school tax reform than the NDP’s ineffective system of rebates and credits.

The word “chicken” was actually first spoken by McFadyen, who accused Doer of being “chicken” for avoiding some of the other leadership debates.  

McFadyen also accused Doer of reckless spending sprees, catering to unionized workers in the province while creating an out-of-control bureaucracy. 

He singled out a burgeoning health care bureaucracy typified by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. 

“Back up the Brink’s truck,” commented McFadyen, while accusing Doer of allowing bloated bureaucracies to flourish under his watch.

The Conservative Leader also accused the NDP of using increased tax revenue and federal transfer payments to embark on its spending spree, while robbing Manitoba Hydro revenues to balance the books and cover up its actions.

The chicken barbs, arising from an exchange between Doer and McFadyen, were a welcome interruption to the unappealing pattern of tow-the-party-line replies to questions posed by the three-member media panel.

The debate was dominated by comments about the economy with the Conservative and Liberal leaders trying to score points against Doer’s eight-year fiscal record as premier. But Doer gave as much as he took. He is in his element whenever he or his government’s record comes under attack. Among Manitoba politicians, Doer is best able to gauge the mood of an audience and work that angle to his advantage. Duplicating Doer’s formidable communication skills is the challenge facing McFadyen and Gerrard. 

On the Manitoba political scene, Doer is the NDP and the NDP is Doer. The present NDP situation is similar to the days when the “other Gary” headed the government and the Conservatives ran their election campaigns under the“Filmon Team” banner.

McFadyen’s public persona is improving daily. He is growing more comfortable in his position as the new leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, and has shown that he possesses a quick wit and is well-prepared when responding to questions. McFadyen may be emerging as the consummate politician, but it’s his announcements during the heat of the election campaign that could be his undoing. If he thought promising to resurrect the Winnipeg Jets would lead him to the premiership, he was dead wrong. The public is not moved by such an obvious ploy to woo their votes. Among the party faithful, such announcements have left them shaking their heads in disbelief. 

Although he has had many years to hone his debating skills, Gerrard still appears awkward during forums. He is a “good” individual with plenty of “good” ideas, but he is unable to overcome his public discomfort when articulating his party’s platform. Being the most intelligent of the three candidates has not helped Gerrard, who clearly has difficulty responding in media-friendly sound bites — essential in any election campaign because of the public’s wavering attention span — mastered by the other two candidates, albeit with varying degrees of success.

In politics, style always trumps substance. It may be unfair, but it’s a reality that has to be stressed above everything else to Gerrard by his advisers. 

It was perhaps the growing realization that the May 22 election is fast approaching that caused the verbal exchanges to intensify as the forum progressed. Both McFadyen and Gerrard suddenly seemed to acknowledge that they had just a week to convince Manitoba voters they deserve to be premier instead of Doer.

When given the opportunity, McFadyen hammered away at “a-get-tough-on-crime” stance, while Gerrard appeared most at ease when criticizing the NDP’s handling of the health-care file. Gerrard said he used a panel of four doctors — he is a doctor himself — to come up with a platform that offers real solutions to the NDP’s “funding black holes” which have resulted in lengthy waiting lists.

By the end of the forum, it became evident that Doer was wrong. If any one of the three leaders are elected premier on May 22, the promises they made — if kept — should result in each and every Manitoban having a chicken in their pot.