Opportunities seized

When Gary Doer was campaigning  for the New Democratic Party leadership, some disgruntled NDPers labeled him an opportunist and a “johnny-come-lately.” 

Adding fuel to the fire was a rumour circulating that Doer had been courted to run for the Conservatives prior to the 1986 provincial election.

The former president of the Manitoba Government Employees’ Association had only returned to the NDP fold in 1986 and was elected as the MLA for Concordia in the same year. Just two years later, Doer was running against stalwart Len Harapiak for the top political job in the province, narrowly defeating his opponent by a 21-vote margin on the third ballot.

The 1988 election was his “baptism of fire” in the normally staid world of Manitoba politics. The election tested his mettle due to criticism that he was leading the party to near oblivion. The handicaps for Doer were a very unpopular previous Howard Pawley NDP government, a resurgence in Liberal fortunes due to Sharon Carstairs and the boost given by a new leader at the helm of the Tories named Gary Filmon.

Just days into the election campaign, an Angus-Reid poll showed the NDP stuck at a pre-leadership convention level of only 19 per cent. Meanwhile, the Conservatives led the polling pack at 43 per cent and the Liberals at 37 per cent. Thirty-two per cent of voters were undecided. Other polls showed the NDP  falling even further behind. 

In urban ridings, where the NDP had been strong in previous elections, the news was mostly all bad — the Liberals had gained significant inroads at the expense of the NDP.

That was when Doer began to fight back against his opponents. Doer accused Carstairs of voting in the legislature with the Tories on key issues, such as day care, taxes and workers’ rights, “seven-tenths of the time.”

“She was seven-tenths a Tory. Now, she’s ten-tenths a Tory. She’s the ‘yes, me too,’ party, the all-things-to-all-people party. Well, let’s start asking her the tough questions. Where is she going to get the $200 million she agrees with the Tories should be given to the corporations (to abolish the payroll tax).”

His bite wasn’t just reserved for Carstairs. Doer said he had a dream of Filmon being premier and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney asking him to “jump.” The reply, according to Doer, was “how high.” 

The 1988 election results showed Doer had every reason to fear Carstairs and the Liberals, who won 20 seats — 19 in Winnipeg and one in Selkirk —  to the NDP’s mere 12. Filmon and the Tories claimed 25 seats, forming a minority government. 

When Carstairs approached Doer to join forces and oust the Tories by forming a coalition, he refused, setting his sights on becoming premier of the province on his own.

Doer became a patient man, honing his political skills and waiting for Manitoba voters to become disillusioned with the Liberals and then the Tories. The Liberals suffered a rapid collapse, but the Conservatives hung around for years on the strength of Filmon’s popularity, which was considerable, as well as a cadre of experienced and politically astute cabinet ministers.

Doer bided his time, grabbing the portion of the middle ground the Liberals had briefly usurped, reuniting the left in his party and setting his sights on the remainder of the middle ground occupied by the Filmon Tories. 

Carstairs and the waning strength of the Manitoba Liberals  disappeared from the local political scene when she was given a patronage appointment to the Canadian Senate. On the other hand, Filmon, faced with difficult decisions to get the province back in the black after years of out-of-control spending  (much of it the result of the previous NDP government), cut back on education funding, had successive cabinet ministers botch the health-care portfolio, privatized the Manitoba Telephone System (highly controversial at the time), all of which handed Doer a singular opportunity. An earlier vote-rigging scandal also threatened to derail the Tories.

With voters turning against the Filmon Team, the 1999 election was Doer’s to lose. But by emphasizing health care and promising to end waiting lists and “hallway medicine,” telling voters the Tories would privatize Manitoba Hydro and promising a property tax cut, his day of glory was about to arrive. He was also helped when the era of the “Two Garys” ended with Filmon stepping down just prior to the election and being replaced by neophyte leader Hugh McFadyen.

As a result of biding his time and learning how to become a winner — besides being extremely fortunate — Doer  became Manitoba’s 20th premier, leading a majority government with 32 seats in the legislature. In his nearly 10 years as premier, Doer has compiled three successive majority wins at the polls. Doer learned well, adapting to situations as they arose. His success is measured in his recognition as the undisputed leader of a once somewhat hostile party membership. In fact, Doer became the NDP — as his star rose, so did the party’s, as well as the fortunes of other candidates running under the NDP banner.

Doer became the consummate “smooth operator,” who was able in his affable manner to sway the most skeptical critic to at least admit some of what he said actually made sense. Over the years, Doer has emerged as a man able to get his point across without ruffling the feathers of too many people. He has walked a fine line between possessing a warm personality and being perceived as politically tough. 

In the process, Doer has honed negotiating skills that Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized would serve Canada well as the new Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. As well, Harper recognized Doer had the potential to become an extremely tough political opponent, if he pursued a federal political career as either a Liberal — as many suspect would have been his future course — or an NDP. 

Although some now accuse Doer of again being an opportunist, he has stepped down gracefully. By not overstaying his welcome, he is allowing a relatively smooth transition in the Manitoba political scene.