Out of step, likely out of government
Tories’ flat rejection of drug safe-consumption sites may satisfy party’s base, but will leave many swing voters cold
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
In the very first few days of 2023, Manitoba Progressive Conservatives find themselves trapped between a political rock and a policy hard place.
First, the political rock.
Despite dominating the past two general elections, the governing PC party is poised for political destruction. In Winnipeg, where the most seats are located, the Tories are behind by more than 25 points to the NDP. It’s a deficit that — if it were to play out in the fall election — would surely drive the Tories back to the opposition side of the Manitoba legislature.
Which brings us to the policy hard place.
Any governing party running that far behind, this close to an election, has to find policies to win back support. Sometimes, those policies cut across party lines; restoring capacity in the health-care system is an idea that voters, regardless of political stripe, can get behind.
The problem is that there are a limited number of commonly held issues that have the potential to change the trajectory for a governing party in crisis. Bold ideas are needed to get disenchanted voters to take another look.
Unfortunately, for every bold idea floated with potential to restore the faith of swing voters, there is a core supporter to object.
Political rock, meet policy hard place.
This is undoubtedly the dilemma facing Premier Heather Stefanson and her brain trust as they find themselves in the same calendar year of the next provincial election.
To date, Stefanson has stayed pretty much within her lane, showing that, for the time being, shoring up core support is more important than trying to win back swing voters. But as the Tories get closer to election day, is there any possibility they will embrace new ideas that might win back some of that critically important swing support?
No issue demonstrates the Stefanson government’s devotion to its core principles than its continued rejection of safe-consumption sites for those with serious drug addictions.
Safe-consumption sites are a proven way to save lives and expose substance abusers to longer-term treatment and recovery options. Despite all the evidence, the government has remained resolutely opposed to the idea, even as substance-related calls to Winnipeg emergency services have skyrocketed and overdose deaths have doubled to more than 400 in the past two years.
Why are the Tories so opposed? A variety of theories have been floated.
One suggests that the province is waiting for the federal government to cover the cost of establishing and operating safe-consumption sites here. Ottawa is already providing funding to support the facilities elsewhere and, in Winnipeg, financially supports a mobile harm-reduction service operated by Sunshine House, a drop-in resource centre in the city’s downtown.
The mobile service, operated out of a converted RV, gives users the chance to have their drugs tested for the presence of dangerous substances, while also accessing clean needles, pipes and condoms. It also operates without any financial support from the province.
A more likely scenario, however, is that the government is afraid that embracing safe-consumption sites would alienate core supporters and is wagering that it will not become a seismic issue for swing voters.
It’s hard to say to what extent this single issue may impact voting intentions although, in general, there is unambiguous evidence showing the Tories are on the wrong side of the debate.
A recent Free Press-Probe poll showed that 81 per cent of Winnipeg respondents support safe-consumption sites; only 18 per cent oppose the idea. Will a lack of support for safe-consumption sites on its own drive voters away from the Tory camp? Unlikely, but stacked up alongside other issues of concern for residents — including health-care system capacity — it could tip the balance towards opposition party candidates.
Regardless of how it plays out in the election, there is little doubt that taxpayer support for a facility that allows people to take drugs without risk of prosecution is unpalatable for many core Tory supporters. And that makes it a non-starter for the Stefanson government.
You could see that closed-mindedness at work when Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard accepted an invitation to tour a safe-consumption site in Vancouver but then refused to go inside. Why get a first-hand look when you’re government has already decided it’s a bad idea?
Guillemard’s behaviour reflects a woefully outdated and judgmental mindset about addictions. When asked recently about its opposition to safe-consumption sites, a spokesperson said the government is focused on a “relentless pursuit of recovery for individual with substance use/addiction.”
In that one statement, the ignorance of the current government’s approach is laid bare. Although recovery is important, so is keeping addicts alive long enough to give them a chance to seek recovery.
It appears increasingly likely that voters who want to see safe-consumption sites in Winnipeg will have to wait until a new government is elected.
And the longer the Tories swim against the current of public opinion on this issue, the more likely it is that a different government will be unveiled in the fall.
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.