Premier on road again, with eye on re-election
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Another day, another news conference away from the Manitoba legislature.
On Monday, to the surprise of many news organizations, Premier Heather Stefanson held a media event outside Dauphin city hall to announce investment in Provincial Trunk Highway 5.
As far as the timing and location were concerned, it was a clever bit of political strategy.
First, it was a good-news announcement about an investment in a highway. Not huge or game-changing, but the $13 million to build a new main access from the highway into the southwest Manitoba city is almost impossible to dislike.
As an added treat, there were no Winnipeg political reporters in attendance.
The media notice was sent shortly after 7 a.m. Monday. Although it was theoretically possible to make the four-hour drive from Winnipeg in time to attend the announcement, it would have been tight.
So, a premier who is regularly under siege in the province’s capital city — for a variety of reasons — had the luxury of making a good-news announcement to a throng of local officials (grateful for the investment), curious onlookers (in general, polite) and local media (bloody thankful to have a local event with the premier to lead their daily coverage).
The Dauphin gathering is not an outlier. Last month, there were at least a half-dozen instances where Stefanson attended events away from the Manitoba legislature and the judgemental gazes of journalists and opposition critics.
Stefanson visited a Winnipeg brewery to discuss a new government-sponsored venture capital fund, St. Boniface Hospital to confirm a major expansion of its emergency room, the former Bay building downtown for an announcement on a transfer of ownership to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, the Brandon Curling Club to announce increased funding for the Sustainable Communities Fund, the Toba Centre for Children and Youth for a funding announcement, and increased support for seniors at a Winnipeg long-term care facility.
Several times during April, those events required Stefanson to miss question period — the daily verbal fisticuffs between governing party and opposition when the legislature is in session. In a couple of instances, the premier’s absence was due to other people’s schedules; in others, however, it was quite evident Stefanson was choosing a good-news announcement over QP.
Other than the obvious appeal of not being forced to play the role of punching bag for opposition MLAs, there is a longer-term strategy at work.
When political advisers say, as they often do, there are no votes to be won in question period, they’re generally right. Premiers rarely “win” any support from the thrust and parry of QP — and that’s just in the chamber.
In the hallways that surround the actual legislature, Stefanson and her cabinet must run the gauntlet of scrums with journalists. Although absorbing such punishment from political opponents and journalists alike is a non-negotiable part of the premier’s job, it’s hardly surprising when first ministers seek a little respite.
A break from verbal abuse isn’t the only benefit of escaping the legislative building. It’s hard to ignore the hard reality facing the Progressive Conservative party: if the Stefanson Tories are to win re-election in the 2023 provincial election, it will have more to do with her forays outside the legislature than her performance inside it.
Six months into her term as first minister, Stefanson is having trouble connecting with voters. You can see the evidence of this struggle in poll results, which show the PCs doing arguably worse than they were under former premier Brian Pallister.
When Stefanson took over last fall, there was a strong consensus that — whatever she brought to the job — she couldn’t do worse than the cantankerous Pallister.
The past few months have called into question that assessment.
Getting out and about, while sprinkling goodies from the recently tabled provincial budget, is not just Stefanson’s way of escaping the drudgery of the legislature. She is trying to breathe life into her moribund party.
There is recent evidence to suggest the strategy is a winner.
NDP premier Greg Selinger was having trouble resonating with voters after he took over the leadership in 2009 from the charismatic Gary Doer. In the spring of 2011, however, spring and summer flooding provided an opportunity for Selinger to get out of the legislature and out into impacted communities.
Not only was the premier served well by headlines noting visits to the front lines, but he got a chance to get out from underneath the daily dose of ritual abuse at the hands of the opposition.
Selinger not only bolstered his own personal popularity, but also shored up support in the NDP government. So much so, after appearing on the brink of defeat in the October 2011 election, the NDP cruised to yet another majority government.
Skipping question period for good-news funding announcements may make journalists and opposition critics howl with indignation. But in doing so, Stefanson shows she has her eye on the only prize that really matters to a politician: re-election.
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.
Updated on Monday, May 2, 2022 9:32 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of breathe