Raising Wab Kinew’s troubled past makes sense, but still fraught with peril, political experts say

By | August 14, 2019

The Progressive Conservatives are dredging up troubling aspects of Wab Kinew’s past while mounting their bid for re-election — a move some political observers describe as risky for Brian Pallister’s party. 

The PC’s advertising campaign, named Wab Risk, includes a website and online videos that feature questions about the NDP leader’s assault of a taxi driver and allegations he abused a former partner.

The Wab Risk videos have received a lot of play, with Progressive Conservatives using targeted advertising to reach voters on Facebook.

“I think it’s a delicate balance [these attack ads] because everyone, and myself included, likes a story of redemption, people who turn their lives around,” said Michael Diamond, a Conservative strategist from Manitoba who led Doug Ford’s campaign to become Ontario’s premier in 2018.

“But one of the key parts of a redemption story is accountability and taking accountability, and there’s only one version of the truth.”

Attack ads are nothing new in modern Canadian politics, but the Progressive Conservatives have the rare opportunity in this case to cite past run-ins with the law. Few leaders of political parties in Canada have a criminal record.

While in power, Brian Pallister’s government has alluded to Kinew’s past, but have been reluctant to delve into specifics. However, since last May, they have been able to discreetly remind voters, with passage of a private member’s bill from a PC MLA, which requires election candidates to reveal if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

With this new advertising campaign, launched in June, the Tories don’t want to be seen as going too far, said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba.

Crossing the line

“If they go overboard and if people sense, ‘Well, this is old news,’ then they may pay a price,” he said.

In one spot, the voiceover asks why Kinew’s story under oath about assaulting a taxi driver is different than what was contained in his memoir, The Reason You Walk.

Kinew has openly admitted to a conviction for impaired driving and for assaulting a cab driver in his early 20s more than a decade ago — offences for which he has received pardons.

He was given a conditional discharge in 2004 for an assault in Ontario, and was charged with assaulting his partner in 2003. The latter charge was stayed, although his former partner maintains Kinew threw her across the room.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says he’s a changed man and the ads critcizing him shows that the Progressive Conservatives are not willing to talk about the issues during this election campaign. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Thomas said voters may say they tire of attack ads, but they arouse a sleepy electorate. It’s like a traffic accident — you cannot turn away, he explained.

The decision to highlight Kinew’s past is likely meant to distract from shortcomings the Tories perceive in their leader, in advance of the Sept. 10 vote, Thomas reasoned. 

“Brian Pallister is not a beloved premier. He doesn’t make an emotional connection with that many voters, outside of his own base, so he has some weaknesses as a leader that the Conservatives would rather not be highlighted in the midst of an intense period like an election campaign,” Thomas said.

“One way of dealing with his weaknesses is to focus on the weaknesses and misdeeds of the past, specifically Wab Kinew,” he said. “If you compare the two leaders you find out, ‘Well, Brian Pallister doesn’t have run-ins with the law in his past, or accusations of domestic violence or homophobic, misogynistic rap lyrics.'”

Ads expose ‘inconsistencies’

While the revelations about Kinew’s past came up during his first election run in 2016 and his subsequent run for party leadership, Diamond argued the allegations still matter because Kinew’s account doesn’t jive with others.

“The inconsistencies that they’re focusing on are not in the past — they’re [in the] present,” Diamond said.

Kinew has repeatedly apologized for his behaviour and denied the assault claim of his former partner. When previously questioned, he has said he’s a changed man.

“I’m very reverent of the journey that I’ve been on, that leads me to the place that I have today, which is the opportunity to run to be the next premier of Manitoba,” Kinew said on Tuesday. “The reason that I think I’m the right person to lead this province is because that journey has taught me compassion and understanding and, most importantly, the importance of listening to people.”

He said the more negative the attack you see about him, the more evidence Pallister is running scared.

Pallister refused to characterize the spot as an attack ad.

“What attack ads? They’re facts,” he said in Brandon.

“Mr. Kinew’s record, his criminal record, is a matter of public record, but it was a matter of coverup for the NDP and Wab Kinew in the last election. 

Sally Housser, a political strategist who served as former NDP Leader Greg Selinger’s press secretary, questions the effectiveness of the PC’s harsh attacks, which she said is the Progressive Conservatives trying to “torque” the story.

“I don’t think that it’s kind of brand new, shocking information, so I don’t know that it’s going to have the impact that they’d be looking for.”

She likes the approach of the NDP instead, which released attack ads on Tuesday showing an exasperated voter dismayed by the current government. In one spot, a woman wonders how someone could look at health care and reason “we need even less of this helping people stuff,” in reference to the PCs’ health-care consolidation in Winnipeg. She also appears to call Pallister an “ass” at one point, but the word is cut off by an ambulance siren.

Christopher Adams, a University of Manitoba political scientist, said the ads intentionally feature women, likely because they are considered swing voters the NDP are trying to win back.

“They’re trying to put into the voters’ mind every time they see a hospital with changes being made or they drive over a pothole, they’ll mentally connect that to the existing government,” he said.

Some of the social media chatter about the Wab Risk advertisements question if the ad is playing up existing stereotypes of Indigenous people.

PCs don’t want to run on record: Kinew

“If you press the right buttons you can prompt an emotional response, which is not civilized and respectful of people and the values they stand for,” Thomas said, stating the “nasty undercurrent” of racism in Manitoba cannot be ignored.

Kinew dodged a question on racism, saying he’s convinced he would be the subject of negative attacks no matter his race.

“Mr. Pallister knows he can’t win an election about health care or about jobs or even about the climate because he’s made a mess of those things,” Kinew said. “He has no choice but to attack me.”