Fort Whyte warning shot for Tory government

Covered in confetti and basking in the applause of well-wishers, newly elected Tory MLA Ibrahim (Obby) Khan dug into his past as a professional football player to put Tuesday night’s tight byelection victory into some context.

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Opinion

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This article was published 23/03/2022 (191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Covered in confetti and basking in the applause of well-wishers, newly elected Tory MLA Ibrahim (Obby) Khan dug into his past as a professional football player to put Tuesday night’s tight byelection victory into some context.

Fort Whyte stays Tory blue in a squeaker

Obby Khan celebrates his win in the Fort Whyte byelection with Premier Heather Stefanson at the PC party headquarters on Tuesday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

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The Fort Whyte byelection went down to the wire with two former Winnipeg Blue Bombers neck and neck.

In the end, Progressive Conservative candidate Obby Khan beat his closest rival, the Liberals’ Willard Reaves in what had been considered a safe Tory seat.

At deadline, with all 56 polls counted, Khan had 3,050 votes to Reaves’ 2,853. NDP candidate Trudy Schroeder finished a distant third with 1,112 votes. Independent candidate Patrick Allard and Nicolas Geddert for the Green Party finished a distant fourth and fifth, with 101 and 55 votes respectively.

Throughout the night, most of the PC caucus was packed into Khan’s campaign headquarters on Scurfield Boulevard, glued to the Elections Manitoba website as updated results showed the two former Bombers jockeying for first place. Three hours after the polls closed at 8 p.m., Elections Manitoba’s online results were still trickling in.

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“Whether you win by one point or one goal or one vote or 100 votes or a thousand votes, a win’s a win.”

With respect to the charismatic Khan — who parlayed his profile as a Winnipeg Blue Bombers player into a successful career as a restaurateur — in politics, how you win, and by how much, is almost as important as whether you win.

Thanks in part to Khan’s high profile, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government retained the southwest Winnipeg seat of Fort Whyte in a nail-biter. It was, to borrow from sports hyperbole, a must-win moment for Premier Heather Stefanson.

The prospect of losing Fort Whyte — arguably one of the safest Tory seats in Winnipeg — was just too horrible for the PCs to contemplate. Down in the polls, hobbled by controversies and self-inflected political wounds, Stefanson went into Tuesday knowing she had to retain this seat to retain the right to lead the party into the 2023 general election.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the alternative.

If Fort Whyte had slipped from her grasp, the Tories would have begun the painful process of reassessing last fall’s decision that put Stefanson at the party’s helm.

With a Fort Whyte loss, even if she stuck around to face voters next year, the party would have been a shell of its former self. Incumbent Tory MLAs, many of whom represent ridings far less secure than Fort Whyte, would be facing an existential threat at the hands of both the Liberals and NDP.

If the past is any indication, those facing the greatest risk of defeat would likely retire rather than face an electoral massacre.

The governing PC party was already teetering on the edge of a historic political collapse. A Fort Whyte byelection loss would have pushed it over that edge and into the abyss.

Winning Fort Whyte will not completely alleviate the anxiety being experienced by Tories incumbents. However, it does buy Stefanson a bit of time to turn things around.

In fact, the premier demonstrated a degree of healthy self-awareness in her post-result comments Tuesday night.

She acknowledged it had been a very close vote and the result was partly a reflection of the anger many people feel “about a lot of things” in the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The premier did not mention the poor marks her government has earned on its pandemic response, but didn’t deny it was the main source of the anger.

Stefanson also acknowledged the task ahead was to connect with Manitobans and “earn their trust.”

Those comments certainly reflect a premier who understands, despite winning Fort Whyte, there are warning signs in this result.

For the first time, the Tories received less than 50 per cent (42.5) of votes cast. The margin of victory (about 200 votes) is the slimmest in a riding held by the PCs since Day 1.

Byelection turnout is typically about one-third to one-half lower than in a general election. However, while still lower, the turnout in Fort Whyte was the highest of any of the three byelections previously held in the riding. The additional voters who showed up for this one were not voting Tory.

Khan pulled in slightly more than 3,000 votes — the PC party’s lowest haul in any Fort Whyte election/byelection since its creation in 1999.

For the first time, the Tories received less than 50 per cent (42.5) of votes cast. The margin of victory (about 200 votes) is the slimmest in a riding held by the PCs since Day 1.

As worrisome as those numbers are for the Tories, they held hope for the Liberals.

Willard Reaves received more votes (2,853) than any Liberal candidate in Fort Whyte history, and the highest percentage of total votes cast (39.77) for a runner-up. That is not just a remarkable accomplishment for Manitoba’s perennial third-place party, it is a direct shot across the bow of the Stefanson government.

If Fort Whyte had slipped from her grasp, the Tories would have begun the painful process of reassessing last fall’s decision that put Heather Stefanson at the party’s helm. (David Lipnowski / Canadian Press files)

Like most incumbent governments, the Tories do not want to see higher voter turnout in a general election — which is typically a signal from voters they want a change. And once the winds of change start blowing, there is virtually nothing the incumbent can do to avoid defeat.

Vote splitting on the left side of Manitoba’s political spectrum is certainly a trump card for Stefanson. A higher Liberal vote usually tends to hurt the NDP; more than one PC government has used this electoral fault line to its advantage. However, it is way too early to suggest the Liberal showing in Fort Whyte will translate to other ridings.

Now that the result is known, the byelection result could prompt one of two responses from the Stefanson government: Tories could view it as a harbinger of doom and start planning for their lives beyond politics, or it can be seized as an opportunity to re-evaluate and retool.

Either way, Stefanson will not be able to avoid the fact she was warned by the good voters of Fort Whyte.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSWillard Reaves received more votes (2,853) than any Liberal candidate in Fort Whyte history, and the highest percentage of total votes cast (39.77) for a runner-up.
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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