Stefanson takes step north to open distance on Pallister

A lot of people, both inside and outside the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party, have been urging Premier Heather Stefanson to move quickly to forge a new brand and break free of the legacy of her predecessor.

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Opinion

A lot of people, both inside and outside the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party, have been urging Premier Heather Stefanson to move quickly to forge a new brand and break free of the legacy of her predecessor.

To date, Stefanson hasn’t put much distance between herself and Brian Pallister. But, in fairness, the actual task of rebranding is a lot more difficult and complex in reality than it is in theory.

Stefanson cannot deliver seismic change too far outside the comfort level of core party supporters. On the other hand, without some sort of new approach, the Tories won’t recapture support it has lost from non-core voters necessary to form government.

What’s a premier to do? How about dedicating public funds to address a priority — one easily defended to voters of all party affiliations — that was systematically ignored by your predecessor?

On Wednesday, Stefanson committed $74 million to support the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill, both of which are owned by Arctic Gateway Group LP, a consortium of northern Indigenous communities and rural municipalities. Along with federal contributions, there will be $147.6 million to maintain and upgrade the rail line, a critical economic and social lifeline for northern Manitobans.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Premier Heather Stefanson cannot deliver seismic change too far outside the comfort level of core party supporters.

Stefanson’s pledge of financial support is notable, in large part because Pallister did so little to help Churchill, even after devastating 2017 floods washed out the rail link.

When Denver-based Omnitrax Inc., then-owner of the railway and port, refused to do repairs after the 2017 floods, Pallister stood firm in refusing to provide financial support. In August 2018, when the federal government stepped in and bought out Omnitrax, Pallister stood on the sidelines with arms crossed.

Ottawa has spent more than $160 million to purchase and repair the rail line. Other than some emergency support for the community, Manitoba provided nothing towards the restoration of the rail link.

Consider Pallister did not make his first visit to Churchill until 2019, three years after he was elected premier. Even then, his grand gesture was to announce funding for repairs to a gravel road.

When compared to Pallister’s neglectful approach, Stefanson’s announcement stands out. That is not to say this is purely a political exercise.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Consider Brian Pallister did not make his first visit to Churchill until 2019, three years after he was elected premier. Even then, his grand gesture was to announce funding for repairs to a gravel road.

The railway and northern port are still critically important infrastructure assets for the entire province, not just northern Manitoba. Although grain companies have largely disowned Churchill as part of the national transportation system, there are proponents who see the logistical advantages of using Canada’s only Arctic port.

These aspirations have received a boost in recent months, as the war in Ukraine has disrupted the global grain supply. More of Canada’s grain could and likely should move through Churchill to help feed impoverished and drought-stricken countries.

There are other opportunities, as well. There has been talk of moving liquid natural gas through Churchill, and there is the entire Nunavut resupply equation (mainly being done by barges originating in Montreal).

Most importantly, the agreement Wednesday confirms both Manitoba and Ottawa are beginning to view the railway and port less as business opportunities and more as public infrastructure assets. The investment may seem large, but it is consistent with the amounts invested in other core infrastructure.

In its 2022 budget, the PC government committed to spending $1.5 billion over the next three years just to repair Manitoba highways.

In its 2022 budget, the PC government committed to spending $1.5 billion over the next three years just to repair Manitoba highways.

Highway construction is a good economic driver and just about everyone accepts they are essential to keep communities and businesses connected. A similar lens must be used to view the HBR and Churchill.

Is this one announcement enough to change the narrative on the Stefanson government? Absolutely not. But she and her people are certainly trying to build a resumé of accomplishments that establish some contrast with her bombastic predecessor.

Some of those entries have less to do with money and more to do with work ethic. Despite a few missteps (Pride Day parade comes to mind), Stefanson has made a deliberate effort to get out and about with Manitobans way more than Pallister ever did.

There are still some unresolved issues that could be seen as opportunities for the premier to create that new brand.

Despite a few missteps (Pride Day parade comes to mind), Stefanson has made a deliberate effort to get out and about with Manitobans way more than Pallister ever did.

Will she continue to borrow money like Pallister to offer tax cuts while the budget is in deficit? Will she continue to starve health care of much-needed investments while wait times grow unconscionably long? Will she abandon Pallister-era plans to defang the Public Utilities Board and allow cabinet to set Manitoba Hydro electricity rates?

Although the Churchill investment is a good first step in a campaign to create a new brand for the premier and her government in the lead-up to the 2023 election, it is just that. One step.

On the other hand, every important journey begins with a single step. In this instance, that step took Stefanson north.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

To date, Premier Heather Stefanson hasn’t put much distance between herself and Brian Pallister.

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.

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 3, 2022 7:34 PM CDT: fixes typo

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