Politics in Manitoba — Adams shows how parties, leaders and voters shaped our system

by Christopher Adams

Since joining Canada in 1870, Manitoba has operated within a number of distinct political-party systems.  These can be enumerated as follows: an embryonic formative system (1870 to 1878), a traditional two-party system (1879 to 1922), a quasi-party system  (1922 to 1958), a transitional three-party system (1958 to 1969), and the province’s currently operating two-and-a-half-party system (1969 onward). 

Until the 1880s, candidates chiefly aligned themselves both in the legislature and in elections as either being “Government” (another term used was “Ministerial”) or “Opposition.” As in many other pre-20th century developing democracies with their own nascent democratic institutions, elected representatives first grouped themselves into loosely structured “factions” before parties entered the scene. 

The shift from a non-party formative system to the two-party system occurred between 1878 and 1883. Due to the support John Norquay received from John A. Macdonald’s federal Conservatives (operating then under the “Liberal-Conservative” label), the 1878 and 1879 provincial elections are considered by some to be the first in which candidates formally battled along party lines in the province.  

However, and in spite of his loose association with Macdonald’s federal Conservatives, Norquay declared himself non-partisan and candidates continued to position themselves as either supporting the government or opposition. This is demonstrated by the Manitoba Free Press coverage leading up to the 1879 election: “Winnipeg is the only constituency in which Dominion party lines have been made an issue — either Liberal or Conservative — and we, therefore, hope that the day is yet remote when it shall split our Local House.” 

There appears to have been debate at the time on whether or not candidates had been running on party lines during the December election. The Manitoba Free Press severely criticized the Winnipeg Daily Times for identifying in its December 19, 1879, edition candidates according to party labels. The Manitoba Free Press argued that Manitobans are “a people that has thoroughly identified themselves with the best interests of the country at large, unconstrained and unbiased by party spirit or party bigotry.”  

Party identities became clearer in 1883 when an early version of the Liberal Party (or “Grits”) appeared in the form of a loose collection of Liberal and “Provincial Rights” candidates in opposition to government candidates. 

Indicative that a new era of partisan politics had arrived is the following report from the Manitoba Free Press: “The nomination of candidates in the different constituencies throughout the province takes place at noon today, and a bid fair to be an event of more than ordinary interest. As the day of battle draws near the winnowing process is thinning the number of candidates down, and by the time the contest takes place, there will probably be an average of two candidates in each of the constituencies representing respectively the issues that divide the two great political parties.”  

Both parties supported policies that would promote investment, transportation, settlement, agriculture and trade. The main issue was over the federally-supported Canadian Pacific Railway monopoly and the right of the province to allow competing railway lines. In other words, the two parties were ideologically indistinguishable and therefore marked by what Maurice Duverger, in his political science classic Political Parties, terms, a “technical dualism” rather than a “metaphysical dualism.”  That is, the two provincial parties aimed to win control over the administrative levers of government, rather than to radically redistribute power according to social groups or economic classes.

Bubbling under this two-party arrangement, however, were those who did want to see power and wealth redistributed. These represented the specific class interests of urban labour and agrarianism. As Winnipeg’s industrial economy quickly expanded, labour-based urban parties made some inroads within the urban electorate. 

Yet and in a similar manner as Alberta and Ontario,  it would be the farmers who swept aside the cozy Liberal-Conservative arrangement and introduced to the province its third political-party system in 1922. Once in government and with John Bracken as their new leader, the United Farmers of Manitoba transformed itself into a solidly based coalition of elected representatives with continual backing from urban business leaders and rural farmers. It would become the Progressive Party (a label already used by farmers at the national level as well as by the United Farmers of Manitoba’s Winnipeg branch ) and then Liberal-Progressive upon being merged with the provincial Liberal Party in 1932. 

One could say that Bracken’s leadership style was an outgrowth of his personality and background. According to Gerald Friesen (The Canadian Prairies: A History): “Bracken was a no-nonsense farm boy from eastern Ontario who had become an agricultural extension officer and eventually a professor of agriculture. He had absorbed the strict teachings of a Methodist household and combined them with an unusual flair for organization and exposition, on the one hand, and for instilling loyalty and a sense of common purpose, on the other.”  

In the 1940s, and with a wartime coalition encompassing Liberal-Progressives, Conservatives, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and Social Credit, candidates continued to run in elections under distinct party banners yet were also expected to declare whether or not they were supporting the governing coalition. The effect was that party distinctions became less than clear. 

During the 1950s and with the accompanying rise to power of Duff Roblin’s Progressive Conservatives (the renamed Conservative Party), Manitoba’s system of one-party dominance dissolved into a three-party system. As the Liberals (having lost their “Progressive” moniker after 1959) fell into a long-term decline, the system eventually evolved into the province’s fifth and current party system: two main parties with a minor third party, or, as the British political system is described, a two-and-a-half-party system.  

However, it was in this new era that the provincial parties began to increasingly move towards what would be termed in other countries as the “catch-all party” model, in that they jockeyed to win government power by recruiting new members from a wide range of social sectors ...

The Progressive Conservatives expanded their search to include business interests as well as farmers and workers, while the CCF worked to reach out to white-collar service-sector voters, farmers and small-business owners.

For modern political parties, a large membership base signifies a sound financial base for the organization, volunteer armies to operate invigorated campaigns and increasingly high levels of voter commitment. The Liberal Party of Canada is an example of how this was effectively done at the national level. 

Christina McCall-Newman revealed in her account ... (Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party) ... how its success was largely tied to an ability to shift its organizational basis from business elites to a more broadly-based organizational structure during the 1960s as it cultivated support among the urban middle class and growing numbers of first-generation Canadians.  

In Manitoba, as the old Liberal-Progressive quasi-party system was replaced by a more competitive party system, provincial party organizations were shifting from being primarily elite-driven to mass-oriented entities. 

Manitoba’s early political-party system

The first provincial election was held on 27 December 1870, the year Manitoba entered confederation. This new legislature established by the Manitoba Act of July 15, 1870, replaced Louis Riel’s short-lived provisional government and its Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The vote was restricted to property-owning males, and candidates were elected by public declarations of support at constituency meetings. 

It was not until 1888 that the property restriction was removed and voting was conducted via private ballot, and only in 1916 were women granted the right to vote.  

A total of 1,057 votes were cast in the first provincial election, and in all but one riding (Winnipeg and St. John) less than 100 votes needed to be counted. 

The first government was operated under inauspicious conditions: it assembled in a log cabin with a royal mace (used to represent the Crown’s sovereignty) constructed from a locally obtained ox-cart wheel. Consisting of 24 elected members, the legislative assembly was much smaller than the 57-member assembly of today. Furthermore, representation was balanced between French-speaking citizens and English-speaking citizens with 12 seats assigned to each group.  

The lieutenant-governor played a central role in these early years. The first two, Adams G. Archibald and Alexander Morris, served as the Crown’s symbolic representative and as direct leaders of the provincial government. Their activities included general administration, putting forward legislation, amending provincial bills and reserving legislation for review by Ottawa. W.L. Morton (author of Manitoba: A History) summarized their role as serving as “their own prime ministers.”  

The legislative wing of the government in these early years was led by Alfred Boyd, Marc-Amable Girard, Henry Joseph Clarke and Robert Atkinson Davis. At the same time, each MLA identified himself as either a government supporter or opponent, rather than along identifiable party lines ... 

The early growth of political parties in Manitoba can be linked to what was occurring throughout other parts of the Western world; that is, as the voting franchise expanded, political parties pulled citizens into the electoral process. They helped to inform voters about candidates and party platforms while encouraging newly-enfranchised citizens to cast their ballot on election day.  

The specific characteristics of Manitoba’s new provincial parties were, according to Andy Anstett and Paul Thomas (Manitoba: The Role of the Legislature in a Polarized Political System), shaped by the arrival of many Ontario settlers who “brought with them attachments to Liberal and Conservative labels.” 

Between these two parties, three premiers were prominent during this era: John Norquay (Conservative), Thomas Greenway (Liberal) and Rodmond Roblin (Conservative). Their dominance is demonstrated by the fact that 11 of the 12 elections held in the province prior to 1915 were won by these three men. It is also worth noting that during this period the same two parties (as well) dominated the federal landscape in Manitoba. 

Of particular significance was Clifford Sifton, who served in Greenway’s cabinet and then moved into federal politics as an influential cabinet minister under Wilfred Laurier and was responsible for settlement policies. 

Prior to 1920, and with only one exception with regard to one seat in 1891, Liberal and Conservative candidates won every federal seat in the province. 

Winnipeg’s odd electoral system

In 1914 and 1915, a complicated voting system was used in Winnipeg that differed from the standard first-past-the-post system used elsewhere across the province. The city was divided into North, South and Centre areas with voters in each area having two ballots to cast: one for a candidate in an “A” seat and the second for a candidate in a “B” seat. The parties took great care to explain to their supporters how the system worked and how they should mark their ballots and avoid vote spoilage.  

Because it was still a riding-based ballot (rather than city-wide), and with candidates prevented from running on both of the two ballots within their respective city region, the process was neither an example of transferable voting (that is, where voters identify a list of preferences by which extra votes can be transferred to the next preferred candidate) nor proportional representation.

The system was replaced in 1920 with city-wide proportional representation, which has been said to be the first time that this approach was used in an election in North America. Winnipeg was treated as one large constituency that was represented by 10 MLAs, and voters cast their ballots by rating their preferences for all the candidates offered. Counting the ballots proved to be an overwhelming and confusing task for the electoral officers in the first election in which the system was used. However, problems relating to ballot counting were rectified in time for the 1922 election.  

This system of electing candidates in Winnipeg ridings would survive until 1949. But even then electoral experimentation continued. 

The single 10-member constituency system was replaced by three constituencies with four MLAs elected in each and by using the preferential ballot. St. Boniface, which was not part of Winnipeg at the time, had two MLAs representing the riding. This system would be in effect until 1958 when Winnipeg was divided into 20 single-member constituencies and St. Boniface’s representation reduced to a single MLA. 

It is important to note that until the 1960s, Manitoba’s electoral system was heavily weighted to give more representation to rural voters than urban voters. This gave a strong advantage to rural-based parties while hampering those based on labour. 

Murray Donnelly (The Government of Manitoba) calculated that in 1952 there were 17 MLAs representing a total of 228,280 registered urban voters while 40 MLAs represented 224,083 registered rural voters. This discrepancy became more extreme ... In the urban riding of Kildonan-Transcona, for example, one MLA represented six times as many voters as compared with the small rural riding of St. George.  

In 1955, with the support of all parties, the legislature passed a bill regarding the establishment of an independent boundaries commission. In 1957, the Electoral Divisions Boundaries Commission submitted its first report to Premier Campbell including a recommendation that the rural-urban ratio be set at seven to four. The new system was passed by the legislature.  

In 1968, the independent boundaries commission put forward new adjustments to the new system (ridings could only vary by 25 per cent from the norm to represent rural areas), which further reduced the relative weight of rural ridings and thereby resulted in almost half of the province’s ridings being located in Winnipeg and its suburbs just prior to the 1969 election.  

The quasi-party system

During the 1920s, Canada’s national two-party system was severely challenged by the Progressive Party with its agrarian-based attacks on party politics and party-led governments. As a result, the Progressives acquired more House of Commons seats than the Conservatives in the 1921 federal election. 

Farmer politics were having a similar effect in the provincial arena. In 1922, the United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM) were elected to power. As was the platform of their federal agrarian counterparts, the UFM maintained that all votes in the assembly should be “free votes” rather than having MLAs forced to vote along party lines. 

According to Thomas and Anstett, “the UFM group was led by John Bracken, who believed in co-operative group government as a way to ensure honesty and economy. A non-partisan approach would also end cabinet domination of the Assembly. Except for financial measures which would involve the life of the government, all legislative votes would be free votes.” 

The UFM took on a new name, the Progressive Party, in time for the election of 1927. Continuing their self-proclaimed non-partisan approach, Bracken’s Progressives promoted both their leader and the idea of a non-party-based functioning government. They labelled themselves the “Bracken Party” while running under the following slogan: “A Business (not a party) Government.”  

While the practitioners of Bracken’s non-party government claimed that legislative non-partisanship would allow MLAs to act according to what they thought was best for their constituents, it effectively reduced the extent to which government decision makers could be challenged by opposition parties. In other words, the Westminster government model, which is the basis for our system of government, is based on having government and opposition groupings within the assembly that are able to debate with each other. Parties therefore play a central role in helping the system function. 

Undercutting their activities benefits those who hold power, rather than the opposition ... In the Manitoba context, one can argue that non-partisanship served to maintain the Winnipeg business and southern farmer status quo to the detriment of urban labour and socially disadvantaged segments of the population. This condition would last for many years to come. 

By the 1940s, the competitive party system had almost evaporated, both in the assembly and within the electoral system ... Candidates would run under their own party banners yet once elected could opt to support or oppose John Bracken’s Liberal-Progressive government. The stultifying impact was evident by the fact that many seats were won through acclamation. 

Prior to the 1940s, no provincial election in the 20th century had more than three ridings won through acclamation. Yet in the 1941 election, of the 45 non-Winnipeg ridings, 16 were won without any challengers. In 1945, seven of the 45 ridings were awarded in this fashion and, in 1949, 15 of the 45 ridings were won through acclamation. 

Some years later Duff Roblin would reflect on his experiences as an MLA in the 1940s and the negative consequences of non-partisanship: “When war ended, drawbacks of the coalition system became clear. It gave a strong tendency to reinforce the status quo in the legislature and in the constituencies. Coalition nominations were seldom contested, and a nomination in that system was the equivalent of election. The Progressive Conservative and Liberal Progressive [sic] party organizations generally co-operated in supporting whomever happened to be the sitting member of the time, so this was pretty much a closed system. In the legislature, the government proceeded serenely, not much disturbed by the views of the few members who were in the opposition.” 

Manitoba returned to a more normalized party system during the 1950s. That is, candidates battled against each other according to distinct party platforms, both on election day and in the legislature. The party with the most seats was expected to form the government, while those elected to other parties would serve in opposition; there would be no non-partisan coalitions. 

In this new era, winning by acclamation had become a thing of the past. Only one riding in 1953 was won through acclamation (by Liberal-Progressive William Morton in Gladstone) and no candidate has since been acclaimed in the province. However, while the parties operated differently in this new era, Bracken’s old Liberal-Progressive Party, then under the leadership of Douglas Campbell, lingered on, continuing to hold power until Duff Roblin’s Progressive Conservatives were able to form a minority government in 1958 ... 

With the CCF also in the mix with 11 seats in 1957 and 10 in 1958, albeit as a weaker party compared to the other two, the regularized party system was essentially a classical three-party system, with all three of the major provincial parties jockeying for power. 

In retrospect, this party system served as a transition towards the current two-and-a-half-party system ... and is marked by the Liberal Party’s (which would shed its “Progressive” moniker during this period) decline from 39 per cent of the provincial vote in 1953 to 33 per cent in 1966, and then to 24 per cent when the NDP came to power in 1969.

(Excerpted from Politics in Manitoba: Parties, Leaders, and Voters, by Christopher Adams, University of Manitoba Press, 2008, Winnipeg, Manitoba. For more information, visit www.umanitoba.ca/uofmpress)