Battlefield Fort Whyte alive with political possibilities

It could be a colossal and yet inconsequential flop or a seismic moment in Manitoba politics, a prelude for wholesale change in government.

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Opinion

It could be a colossal and yet inconsequential flop or a seismic moment in Manitoba politics, a prelude for wholesale change in government.

As the legislature reconvenes for a critical late-winter session, all eyes turn to the March 22 byelection in Fort Whyte, a Winnipeg district seat vacant since October following the retirement of former premier Brian Pallister.

Byelections typically draw extremely low voter turnout and media attention, doing little to change the political landscape. However, this one provides voters with some tantalizing opportunities for electoral mischief.

Despite riding high in opinion polls and nominating a high-profile candidate — former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Winnipeg Folk Festival executive director Trudy Schroeder — few observers believes the New Democrats have a chance to win Fort Whyte.

By not winning, however, the NDP faces what is, in essence, a lose-lose scenario.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS
Tory star candidate Ibrahim (Obby) Khan.

If the Tories and star candidate Ibrahim (Obby) Khan retain the electoral district held by the Progressive Conservatives since its inception in 1999, it will provide a much-needed morale boost to a party demoralized by plummeting support in opinion polls and internal concern about the performance of Premier Heather Stefanson.

The NDP lead in those polls, particularly in Winnipeg, remains strong but anything that breathes life into a largely moribund party would be a source of concern.

On the other hand, a Liberal win by candidate Willard Reaves puts wind in the sails (official status) of a party that typically battles the NDP for support from the centre and left-centre of Manitoba’s electorate.

If New Democrats had to pull for one scenario over the other, it appears they prefer a Tory hold over a Liberal gain. “Anything that suggests (the Liberals) are a viable alternative is bad for us,” said one NDP strategist.

The Liberals clearly understand this is their best chance to change the minds of voters, who have largely seen the Grits as the perennial third-place party.

Trudy Schroeder is running for the NDP. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It is important to note in recent federal elections, Fort Whyte voters fall within the confines of Winnipeg South and Winnipeg South Centre — both have shown determined support for the Liberals.

Once thought by Tories to be the urban version of a “yellow dog riding” — a rural electoral district that votes faithfully for the PC party, come hell or high water — Fort Whyte has evolved into a more diverse and dynamic region within Winnipeg.

It will not hurt Reaves he is already getting visible support from federal Liberal MPs such as Terry Duguid (Winnipeg South). “I am engaged and active as a resident of Fort Whyte,” Duguid said. “I will be strongly supporting Willard Reaves.”

Given those underlying conditions, Liberal strategists have become increasingly confident that, given the right circumstances and timing, they could challenge in this riding.

Both of those elements seem to be aligning for the Grits.

JASON HALSTEAD / FREE PRESS FILES
Liberal Willard Reaves

First and foremost, the PC party is in deep, debilitating trouble.

Stefanson largely avoided any kind of post-convention bump when she was selected as leader last fall.

With an abundance of advance planning and a manipulation of the timing and rules of the race, Stefanson had sought a stately coronation. Instead, she triumphed in a contest fraught with allegations of conflict of interest and dirty tricks. Any hope of a honeymoon period evaporated as soon as challenger Shelly Glover went to court to challenge the result.

Since taking over, Stefanson has been unable to convince Manitobans she is better than Pallister at pandemic management. Both are viewed by many as indifferent to science and vulnerable to fringe political demands from within the party’s base of support.

Stefanson has been so underwhelming there are concerns about whether the voters who elected Pallister in Fort Whyte for nearly a decade will turn out in force for Khan, a former Winnipeg Blue Bombers player turned charismatic restaurateur.

Stefanson has been so underwhelming there are concerns about whether the voters who elected Pallister in Fort Whyte for nearly a decade will turn out in force for Khan, a former Winnipeg Blue Bombers player turned charismatic restaurateur.

It does not help the Tories that Pallister left behind no discernible riding structure or resources.

Despite making forceful demands on his caucus to tend to their riding gardens and raise money, Pallister did neither. He infamously purchased a home on Wellington Crescent (outside his district), routinely avoided cultural or community events, and spent most weekends at his second home east of Portage la Prairie.

As well, party sources confirmed Pallister regularly left his constituency office under-resourced or even unattended altogether.

An unpopular government and leader. A hungry opposition. And a lack of attention on constituency relations.

The voters of Fort Whyte, should they be interested, have the rare opportunity to engage in some high-level electoral mischief.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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