Silence from the bridge belies trouble brewing aboard the S.S. Stefanson List of retiring Tory incumbents grows
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How many Tories have to flee the provincial Progressive Conservative caucus before it qualifies as an exodus?
That is not a rhetorical question. Although there is a new retirement announcement from the Tory caucus on an almost-daily basis, the cumulative total of departures has not yet reached the point where anyone can say that Premier Heather Stefanson’s MLAs are fleeing what they believe to be a sinking ship.
But it’s getting close.
This week alone, two more high-profile Tories have decided to call it quits. Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere confirmed Tuesday he will not run for re-election in the next provincial election, which must be held by Oct. 3. And then Wednesday, Speaker Myrna Driedger — a 25-year veteran of provincial politics who is the MLA for Roblin — announced she will follow suit.
That makes eight Tories who have decided to step down before the next election: in addition to Lagimodiere and Driedger, there is deputy premier Cliff Cullen, Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke and MLAs Ralph Eichler, Ian Wishart, Blaine Pedersen and Dennis Smook.
And you can bet there will be more.
Tory sources confirm that Stefanson set an early January deadline for all members of her caucus to reveal whether they will be candidates in the upcoming election. Those sources believe that as a result of that ultimatum, several more veteran PC MLAs will announce their retirements by early next week.
There will come a point where the sheer number of departures will create the impression that Tories do not believe they can win the next election.
This scenario is certainly not unique to the current iteration of the Progressive Conservatives.
General elections do serve as a natural watershed for elected officials, particularly those who are older or who have served a long time. Combine that with politicians who have legitimate family issues — a death or illness — and it’s not unusual to see some use an election as a window of departure.
Depending on how you define “departure,” in the year before the 2016 election, about a dozen NDP MLAs and cabinet ministers pulled the plug.
The departing incumbents included Jim Rondeau (Assiniboia), Erin Selby (Southdale), Stan Struthers (Dauphin), Ron Lemieux (Dawson Trail), Jennifer Howard (Fort Rouge), Bidhu Jha (Radisson), Gord Mackintosh (St. John’s), Nancy Allan (St. Vital), Theresa Oswald (Seine River) and Daryl Reid (Transcona).
Back in 2016, there was very little doubt about the reasons behind those departures.
The NDP were trailing the then-Opposition Tories by 20 points or more in most public opinion polls. Former premier Greg Selinger had damaged the brand of his government significantly by introducing a one-point increase in the PST to fund infrastructure after expressly promising he would do no such thing.
And then he was forced to fight off a leadership challenge after an uprising in his own caucus.
Either to avoid a humiliating defeat on election night, or because they no longer supported Selinger, the departing New Democrats were indeed fleeing a sinking ship. And sink it did: the PCs under former premier Brian Pallister won a thunderous majority and left the NDP a shadow of the juggernaut that governed Manitoba for the previous 17 years.
Looking at the polls right now, you can see very similar conditions facing the Tories.
The PC government trails the NDP by more than 20 points in opinion polls, and Stefanson ranks as the least-popular premier in the country. However, it’s important to note the caucus does, relatively speaking, skew older. That means a greater number of Tories have reached the age where they no longer want to endure the relentless stress and strain of being an elected official.
Unfortunately, if this is more about the average age of Tory MLAs, and less about a lack of confidence in Stefanson, the premier is doing next to nothing to make that point.
Due to illness, Stefanson cancelled year-end interviews during which she would have faced questions about the incumbent departures. Her staff have indicated she will reschedule those interviews, but on Wednesday, with word of two more departures, Stefanson turned a deaf ear to requests for comment.
At some point, both hard-core Progressive Conservatives and the broader Manitoba electorate need to see and hear Stefanson telling people the departures are no big thing, and that she and the party will be in good shape come October.
It might also help if the Tories could unveil some new star candidates recruited to fill the holes left by the departed.
Stefanson did well in her recruiting when it came to recent byelections in Fort Whyte and Kirkfield Park. The Tories held both ridings, thanks in no small part to the profiles of Blue Bombers legend Obby Khan and former city councillor and mayoral candidate Kevin Klein, respectively.
Unfortunately for Stefanson, many of the ridings with retiring members have only just started looking for candidates and must still go through time-consuming nomination processes.
Until reinforcements arrive, it will be essential that Stefanson get out in public and in front of news media to convince Manitobans that her ship is still seaworthy.
Silence at this awkward and delicate stage of her leadership will only galvanize concerns the Tories have already hit an iceberg.
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 Wednesday, January 4, 2023 8:09 PM CST: Clarifies date of next provincial election
Updated on Wednesday, January 4, 2023 8:54 PM CST: Adds Greg Selinger's first name on first reference