Tories face uphill climb digging out of current support hole

Premier Heather Stefanson has not made a good first impression on Manitobans.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/03/2022 (188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Premier Heather Stefanson has not made a good first impression on Manitobans.

Whether it was her rejection of science last month in a surprise announcement to lift all pandemic public health measures by March 15, her refusal to condemn the so-called “freedom convoy” occupiers or last week’s decision to congratulate her son’s hockey team when asked about the death of a COVID-19 patient Krystal Mousseau, the Tory leader has not impressed voters.

According to a new Free Press/Probe Research Inc. survey, the Progressive Conservative party under Stefanson is almost as unpopular as it was under premier Brian Pallister, who resigned last year after Tory support hit rock bottom.

According to the recent poll, only 34 per cent of Manitobans would vote for, or are leaning towards, the PC party. That’s well-below the NDP’s 44 per cent support provincewide. It’s not much better than the Tories’ 29 per cent showing under Pallister before he resigned Sept 1.

The PC party got a bump in the polls when Tory house leader and cabinet minister Kelvin Goertzen took over as premier on an interim basis for two months.

However, the numbers have since declined under Stefanson, especially in Winnipeg, where support has fallen to 23 per cent — the same level it was (22 per cent) in Pallister’s final days.

At that level, the Tories would likely lose most of their Winnipeg seats in the next election (no later than Oct. 3 2023) and be relegated to the opposition benches. The Tories have strong support in southern Manitoba outside the capital. However, if they don’t have parity with the NDP — or something close to it — in Winnipeg, they don’t usually have enough seats to form government.

When Stefanson took over in November, she had the advantage of a modest momentum shift. Goertzen was seen as a steady hand in the premier’s office and the bump in the polls for the Tories reflected that; those gains soon evaporated.

Stefanson’s first mistake was how quickly she ignored public health data when deciding when and how fast to lift COVID-19 restrictions.

It was seen as reckless. Her inability to defend those decisions intelligently (giggling when asked a serious question at a news conference didn’t help) and her admission last month government was placing too much emphasis on public health advice revealed a shocking level of incompetence.

According to a new Free Press/Probe Research Inc. survey, the Progressive Conservative party under Stefanson is almost as unpopular as it was under premier Brian Pallister. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Under Stefanson, government has also made virtually no progress on reducing wait times for surgeries and diagnostic testing, which grew to record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. The task force struck by Stefanson in December hasn’t provided the public with an update since January. Meanwhile, the backlogs continue to grow.

Under Stefanson, Manitobans have also been left in the dark on overall hospital operations.

No one from Shared Health, which oversees hospitals, has provided the public with a detailed update on bed utilization, ER wait times or staffing issues in almost three months — at least not at news conferences where officials can be questioned. Other than limited information from the province’s incident command spokesman David Matear (via Zoom-based news conferences), the public has been given little insight into the status of Manitoba’s health-care recovery plan.

Meanwhile, the province announced this week it will be further reducing the scope of information it releases about COVID-19 patients in hospital.

It’s hard to tell who’s in charge of Manitoba’s health-care system these days and what’s being done to fix it. That’s concerning, especially with 359 COVID-19 patients still in hospital, as of Friday.

All of this has reflected poorly on Stefanson, who, at times, doesn’t even look like she wants the job. She doesn’t exude confidence and continues to show poor judgement (including her failure to make a timely apology for her inappropriate response to questions about Mousseau, who died in May 2021 during an attempt to airlift her out of province for COVID-19 care).

The Tories have about a year-and-a-half to turn this around before the next provincial election. It’s not a lot of time. It doesn’t help when the new leader stumbles as often as Stefanson has.

You never get a second chance at a good first impression.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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