Tories will transform, but they’ll do it on opposition benches Electoral demolition to come will provide opportunity to reset with new leadership, fresh thinking
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Former Manitoba Tory cabinet minister Jim Downey used to say the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition.
Having been on both sides of the house, the former deputy premier had a pretty good idea of the difference. Doing time on the opposition benches isn’t a bad place for newbies to learn the legislative ropes. Going back to that side of the chamber after a stint in government is like getting a lump of coal in your stocking on Christmas morning.
That’s largely why many Tory MLAs are now announcing they will not run in the upcoming provincial election, scheduled for Oct. 3. The Tories have no chance of winning a third term in office. Their ship isn’t just sinking, it sunk months ago.
The writing was on the wall as far back as March, when public opinion polls showed electing a new leader had not turned the party’s fortunes around. The gap between the Tories and the NDP in Winnipeg (where provincial elections are won and lost) widened from 23 percentage points, before Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson took over as leader, to 29 points four months after she was sworn in as premier.
The party never recovered. A Probe Research Inc. poll in December shows the Tories are still 28 points behind in the capital city. That’s an insurmountable obstacle between now and election day.
Moreover, there’s nothing the Stefanson government has said or done in recent months to provide the party with any hope of a turnaround. Quite the opposite; the Tories have continued to trot out 1990s-style conservative “tough on crime” and “tax cut” policies that don’t appeal to most modern, urban voters.
It’s over. It was over months ago.
That’s why the first of the ship-jumpers, Scott Fielding, the former Tory MLA for Kirkfield Park, went overboard in June. He read the tea leaves and had no interest in going from the cabinet table to the opposition benches (where he’s never been and had no interest in finding out what it’s like).
The same goes for most Tory MLAs who are not seeking re-election, some of whom have been in opposition and have no desire to return. It’s not fun. Getting mocked by government MLAs who remind you daily why voters sent your party back to “that side of the house” is not a pleasant experience.
One of the toughest things former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon did during his political career was stand up in the chamber as Opposition leader in 1999 and ask the new NDP premier, Gary Doer, questions. After serving as premier for more than 11 years, Filmon resumed the role of Opposition leader for seven months (he didn’t have to, he could have stepped down as leader) before moving to the backbenches and ultimately resigning four months later. He took his lumps, as did former Tory cabinet minister Bonnie Mitchelson, who served as interim Opposition leader after Filmon.
Not many are willing to do so. Which is why nearly a dozen NDP MLAs jumped ship prior to the 2016 provincial election. Much like the Tories today, the NDP had zero chance of retaining government and few wanted to grin and bear it in opposition. It’s an entirely normal response in the months leading up to an expected change in government.
The Tory MLAs who are staying to fight the good fight will be in it for the long haul. Some may have their sights on leadership, knowing that Stefanson will almost certainly step down after the next election. Others will lose their seats and retire from politics. There may be a few veterans, such as Tory stalwart and Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who will stick around temporarily to help with the transition.
The Progressive Conservative party will not likely be back in government for at least eight years after the October election, maybe longer. That will depend largely on the performance of the NDP. It will also depend on whether the party can modernize itself. It’s clear that old-style conservatism no longer sells in urban Manitoba.
The party will have to find a leader who can put a progressive stamp on the organization, while still differentiating itself from the NDP. That shouldn’t be difficult to do once the old guard clears out and makes way for a younger, more enlightened group of Tories. The future is not bleak for the party, as long as it can offer Manitobans a 21st-century brand of politics. It will have at least two terms in opposition to figure that out.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.