Tories wager on pre-election largesse, but gift horse comes up lame

Talk about a poor return on investment.

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Talk about a poor return on investment.

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government mailed out hundreds of thousands of “carbon relief” cheques to households earlier this month, ended the funding freeze for municipalities in February, cut education property taxes and brought in a heavy spending budget three weeks ago that included across-the-board tax cuts.

And what did they get in return for those pre-election goodies? A puny three-point bump in public opinion polls, a margin-of-error change.

Premier Heather Stefanson announced a new carbon tax relief fund at a press conference at Food Fare in January. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Probe Research Inc. released its latest poll this week showing the PC party still well behind the NDP in popular support — massively so in Winnipeg where provincial elections are won and lost. The Tories narrowed the lead slightly from the last poll in December. But the gap is in line with quarterly polls going back two years.

In March 2021, the Tories were six percentage points behind the NDP provincewide. In Winnipeg, the gap was 22 points. Two years later, the PCs are still six points behind overall and trailing the NDP by 23 points in Winnipeg. The NDP lead has fluctuated somewhat over the past two years, but overall, it remains largely unchanged.

Installing a new leader didn’t help the Conservatives. Premier Heather Stefanson took over as party leader from former premier Brian Pallister in November 2021. The following month, a Probe poll showed the Tories were five points behind the NDP (23 points in Winnipeg), almost exactly where they are today. Nothing has changed.

The gap between the PCs and the NDP has hovered between five and 11 points for the past two years, with no discernible trend in any direction. Voter intention has become entrenched.

No amount of free cheques, tax cuts or big spending before the next election (scheduled for Oct. 3) is going to change that. Sometimes it makes things worse. People don’t like being bribed.

No amount of free cheques, tax cuts or big spending before the next election (scheduled for Oct. 3) is going to change that. Sometimes it makes things worse. People don’t like being bribed.

The Tories beg to differ. They point to a pair of byelection victories last year as evidence they’re building momentum. However, byelections are poor indicators of general election outcomes, especially in party stronghold ridings (such as the two the Tories won in 2022, Fort Whyte and Kirkfield Park).

Byelections are sideshows with very low voter turnout that focus mainly on individual candidates. Voters are not deciding which party they want to form government, the way they do in general elections. History shows there is no connection between byelections and general election results.

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith won a byelection in Point Douglas in 2017. Her party lost the general election two years later. Amanda Lathlin won a byelection in the The Pas for the NDP in 2015, the year before the party was routed in a general election.

Former Tory leader Hugh McFadyen won a byelection in Fort Whyte in 2005 and Cliff Cullen, now finance minister, won one in Turtle Mountain the year before. The Tories lost the 2007 general election.

Former Progressive Conservative leader Stuart Murray (right) raises hand of MLA Gerald Hawranik after winning his byelection win in Lac Du Bonnet. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Gerald Hawranik won a byelection for the PC party in Lac du Bonnet in 2002, a year before the Tories were defeated in the 2003 provincial race. The Tories won byelections in 1997 and 1998 in Portage la Prairie and Charleswood, respectively, but lost the 1999 general election.

The NDP was giddy after winning three byelections in 1993 while in opposition (Gord Mackintosh in St. Johns, Eric Robinson in Rupertsland and Harry Schellenberg in Rossmere). Two years later, the party was soundly defeated in the 1995 provincial election.

The Liberals also won byelections in 1993 (Gary Kowalski in The Maples and Norma McCormick in Osborne), yet the Grits were slaughtered in the 1995 general election, dropping from seven seats to three and losing their leader Paul Edwards (who was defeated in St. James).

Former Tory premier Gary Filmon won a byelection in 1979 and his party lost government two years later.

There are other examples of parties winning byelections prior to forming government. But there is no logical connection between the two.

The problem for the Tories is the time-for-a-change dynamic has taken a foothold. That was evident several months after Stefanson took over as party leader, when she committed the fatal error of embracing most of her former boss’s unpopular policies. She also shot herself in the foot on several occasions with inappropriate public comments and ill-advised actions (such as skipping the annual Pride parade).

This week’s poll is further evidence the Tories’ time in office is coming to an end.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

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


Updated on Friday, March 31, 2023 7:20 AM CDT: Changes preview text

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