BRANDON -- The Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party has been too rural, too white and too male for too long. Party leader Brian Pallister knows that, and he's doing something about it.
Immediately after becoming leader of the party last summer, he acknowledged the problem and promised that "we will be the most inclusive political organization that this province has ever seen." He repeated that commitment earlier this week, as he detailed his plan to make his party more receptive to and representative of all Manitobans.
Central to the strategy is a plan to adopt policies that will make the party more attractive to women and new Canadians, along with an ongoing effort to recruit them into the party. "It requires our constituency associations to be more open than they have been," he said. "More inclusive and more ambitious than they have been."
As part of that approach, Pallister and other senior party members are consulting with women representing different segments of Manitoba society. He says that the meetings are "designed to solicit ideas for how to do a better job for the people of Manitoba and do a better job of making sure that our political organization is reflective of the priorities of women in our province."
Another part of the strategy includes socially sensitive policy announcements, including a call for an increase in the shelter allowance for social assistance recipients. Finally, teams of party workers -- "Blue Crews" -- will be taking the Tory message into NDP-held ridings throughout the province.
Brandon West PC MLA Reg Helwer supports his leader's plan. "Any party needs to open its doors as wide as possible to engage more voters," he said. "Being inclusive allows us to be vibrant and grow."
Pallister's outreach and recruitment strategy was not welcomed by a number of long-time Tories last year. They objected to "watering down" the party's core conservative values and bringing Manitobans who did not share those values into the party.
Pallister has a number of powerful responses to those gripes, starting with the results of the past four elections. The lesson to be learned from those losses is that the Tories cannot form government in Manitoba with an "Alberta agenda" that implicitly tells a broad swath of this province's population that their values, opinions and needs don't matter.
He can also point to the fact, confirmed by senior party sources, that the Tories lack ongoing, viable constituency associations in more than two dozen ridings throughout the province, including the North and a large portion of Winnipeg. That's not enough organizational infrastructure for the party to win an election. It is a direct result of a flawed platform and recruitment strategy that has appealed to far too narrow a segment of Manitobans for too long.
Pallister's strongest argument for change within the PC party is found in recent public opinion poll results, which show that his approach is gaining traction. A survey conducted in early April for the Free Press by Probe Research found that the Tories led the NDP by seven percentage points (42 to 35) province-wide and held a four-point lead among female voters.
Those were the numbers before the Selinger government brought in its 2013 budget, with its controversial PST increase, and before the NDP's bungling of the Assiniboia Downs issue had been exposed to the public. Those issues point to the likelihood that the results will be even better for the Tories after the next poll.
"Our last survey showed the PCs had a significant advantage and, perhaps more importantly, had pulled even with the NDP in vote-rich Winnipeg," says Probe's Curtis Brown. "We'll be watching the next round of polling very closely to see what effect, if any, the budget and some of the other challenges facing the NDP are having on their support in Manitoba. It's in the field now and the results should be released later this month."
Nobody is more anxious to see those results than Pallister. He needs another round of strong polling numbers in order to silence the dissenting voices within his party, and to convince those thinking of supporting his party that he is on the right track.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.