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Pallister should be careful what he wishes for

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BRANDON -- It is an idea that is best filed under "be careful what you wish for."

Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister is demanding that Premier Greg Selinger call a provincial election and give Manitobans the opportunity to pass judgment on his government's controversial PST increase.

"It promised to not raise taxes and is proposing to do so now without making the case that it should," he says, "and so the government must do one of two things: either call a referendum on the PST or call an election and let Manitobans decide."

The timing of Pallister's challenge is far from surprising. A Probe Research poll revealed last week that the Tories hold a 43 to 29 per cent lead over the NDP provincewide, and a 37 to 36 per cent lead in Winnipeg.

The Probe results followed the release of an Angus Reid poll a week earlier, which indicated just 26 per cent of Manitobans approve of the job Selinger is doing as premier, while 50 per cent approve of Pallister's performance as Opposition leader.

In theory, those results suggest Pallister's Tories would cruise to victory if an election were held today. In reality, a PC win would be far less certain.

Two years after what many described as the worst-run Tory election campaign in a generation, when it won just 19 seats in the legislature, the party remains stuck at exactly the same level of support as it had at the end of that campaign, both provincewide and in Winnipeg.

The big change in the Probe numbers is the NDP's support, which has plummeted since the 2011 election from 46 per cent to 29 per cent provincially, and from 53 per cent to 36 per cent in Winnipeg. All that NDP support has drifted to the Liberals (now at 20 per cent) and the Greens (now at eight per cent).

Several conclusions flow from those numbers.

First, they tell us the Tories have either hit or are near their ceiling in support -- the maximum percentage of Manitobans who would consider voting for the party. Though the controversies surrounding the Selinger government have hardened the support for the Tories (they are more likely to actually vote than supporters of other parties) those controversies have not caused more Manitobans to shift their support to the PC party.

Second, while 45 per cent of Manitobans are solid Tory supporters, the remaining 55 per cent appears extremely unwilling to vote PC. Of that 55 per cent, almost 30 per cent is solidly committed to the NDP. The remaining 25 per cent is currently divided between the Liberals and Greens.

Third, the Tories' lead over the NDP is extremely soft. The Manitoba Liberal party has no platform and is about to elect a leader with no elected experience, while the Green party has largely vanished since the 2011 election. If an election were called today, it is likely many disenchanted NDP voters who are currently "parking" their votes with the Liberals and Greens would return to the NDP to prevent a Tory victory, as they have in the past.

Finally, the NDP doesn't need 46 per cent of votes cast to win a majority government. The efficient distribution of its support (it is largely concentrated in about 40 ridings) means the party could challenge for a majority with as little as 40 per cent of the popular vote.

The implications of these facts should be troubling for Pallister's Tories.

Under the present conditions, they cannot win a head-to-head contest with the New Democrats. Their only hope of victory hinges on a strong Liberal campaign siphoning votes away from the NDP. Given the current unsettled state of the Manitoba Liberal Party, that is too much to realistically hope for.

The fact the Tories need the help of Liberals to win an election is plenty of proof now is not the time for Pallister to be daring Selinger to call one.

Rather, it is time for the PC party to take a look in a mirror, ask itself why it has failed to grow its support at a time of NDP turmoil, and make the changes necessary over the next two years to attract more Manitobans into its tent.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2013 A15

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