Fort Whyte signals its discontentment

Manitoba’s governing Progressive Conservatives won their byelection in south Winnipeg’s Fort Whyte district on Tuesday, electing former football player and restaurateur Obby Khan to fill the seat vacated by former premier Brian Pallister. The local victory, however, contained the seeds of a possible defeat in next year’s general election.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2022 (190 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba’s governing Progressive Conservatives won their byelection in south Winnipeg’s Fort Whyte district on Tuesday, electing former football player and restaurateur Obby Khan to fill the seat vacated by former premier Brian Pallister. The local victory, however, contained the seeds of a possible defeat in next year’s general election.

Fort Whyte voters cast 42 per cent of their ballots for the famous and charismatic Mr. Khan, a sharp drop from the 57 per cent who voted for Mr. Pallister in 2019. That massive 15-point swing follows five gaffe-strewn months of leadership by Premier Heather Stefanson and poll results suggesting that the public is in no mood to forgive and forget the ruling PCs’ health-care cuts and hesitant measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tories won the 2019 general election with 47 per cent of the popular vote. A 15 per cent swing against them would take them down to 32 per cent of the vote, perhaps enough to win a minority government, perhaps not, depending how the other parties fare.

If Fort Whyte was bad news for the Tories, it was also disappointing news for the New Democrats. As Official Opposition, they should be the obvious choice when the public is in a mood to get rid of the present government. Their share of the vote in Fort Whyte, however, dropped slightly to 16 per cent yesterday from 18 per cent at the 2019 general election.

For voters disenchanted with the PC party, the question this week in Fort Whyte was the same as it will be at the general election next year: how do we get rid of these Tories? The answer from those disenchanted voters in Fort Whyte was a large switch to the Liberals, despite the weak and disorganized state of that party. The Liberal share of the vote shot up to 40 per cent from 18 per cent three years ago.

This aversion to the NDP will not apply in all parts of the province, but the Fort Whyte result should warn the NDP not to expect easy success in the many Winnipeg suburban districts that now make the difference in Manitoba general elections. Where the NDP was formerly the obvious alternative to the PCs, the Liberals are now suddenly a factor.

(John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press) Obby Khan celebrates his victory on Tuesday.
It is no longer enough for the New Democrats to sit back and wait for public disgust with the PCs to lift them into power. Plenty of voters have not yet forgotten widespread disappointment with former premier Greg Selinger’s NDP government that preceded the PCs’ rise to power in 2016. The public needs reasons for believing the New Democrats have matured beyond the quarrelsome spirit that infected it five years ago.

The Liberals’ startling success in Fort Whyte will focus fresh attention on them. They have been a minor factor in Manitoba elections since 1988, when Sharon Carstairs led them briefly to Official Opposition.

In Manitoba’s odd system of two-and-one-half political parties jousting for power, it hardly matters, most of the time, what the Liberals are doing and saying. Now, suddenly, it matters. Liberal Leader Dugald Lamont will need to show the toughness of a serious contender for power, vet his candidates mercilessly, shape his discourse carefully and show the public a party that can stand up to the scrutiny it will face in this moment of shifting political loyalties.

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