Premier Greg Selinger is facing a potential revolt within his caucus following a series of bad-news polls and Wednesday’s evaporation of support for New Democrat Judy Wasylycia-Leis in Winnipeg’s mayoral race.
Backbench MLAs, cabinet ministers and longtime New Democrats feel Selinger must resign as leader if the NDP is to have a chance of winning the next provincial election, expected in 2016.
The view that Selinger, who has led the NDP for five years, is weighing the party down is not unanimous. Many feel the government can weather the storm and still win if he remains at the helm.
But one NDP source said about half the 36-member caucus feels he should step down. Another source said a lot of that push is coming from his front bench.
"Is it time for him to take that long walk in the snow?" one party member said, referring to a comment made by the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau when he decided to retire.
The internal pressure on Selinger to step aside is such that he cancelled a trip to China this week as part of a Canadian trade mission. The premier sent Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn in his place, accompanied by Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee.
Selinger’s handlers said the premier cancelled the trip to deal with the situation at Manitoba Hydro’s Jenpeg generating station. Pimicikamak Cree Nation continues to occupy the buildings and land around the dam, which is being operated by a skeleton staff to safely oversee its operations.
But a source said internal party considerations also weighed on his decision.
"He’s definitely vulnerable right now. He’s got some leadership questions being thrown his way by people in the party, by people in his caucus."
Sources said there would not have been a palace coup had he gone overseas. Several party members said there is no one actively campaigning for Selinger’s job.
Many party and caucus members are hoping the premier will see the writing on the wall and form an exit strategy that will allow him to leave with dignity.
The premier was asked for comment on Friday afternoon.
Late in the day, a spokeswoman for Selinger issued a statement that read: "Our MLAs are passionate about serving their constituents and all Manitobans. Every close-knit family has its share of disagreements, but we work through those together so we can focus on getting results for Manitoba families."
Many believe Theresa Oswald, the jobs and economy minister, would make a popular leader. They believe she would compare favourably running head-to-head with Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.
But they stress that Oswald is not lobbying for the job.
"It (the revolt) is not being led by the ‘Theresa Oswald wants to be next premier’ faction because who would want to be the next premier right now?" one NDP member said, referring to a recent poll that placed the party’s support at 30 per cent (compared with 42 per cent for the Tories).
The main consideration by those who are pushing for the leader to step down is they don’t think Selinger can lead them to victory again — particularly after the clumsy handling of last year’s unpopular sales-tax increase.
They say the premier needs to make his decision soon in order to give the new leader a chance to get established.
"I’m worried about my party," one New Democrat said.
"I’m worried about how the government is being led, and not just by Greg. There are others as well. There are lots of problems. The next few months will be absolutely crucial to us."
Despite winning 37 seats in the 2011 election, the biggest majority the NDP has won since coming to power in 1999 (with the resignation of The Pas MLA Frank Whitehead it now has 36 seats), the party’s fortunes started declining a year later when the government expanded the provincial sales tax to haircuts costing more that $50 and some insurance products.
The following year, the government shocked the public by hiking the provincial sales tax by one point to eight per cent despite a campaign promise not to raise it.
Several party members interviewed this week said the tax hike was not handled well, contributing to the NDP’s current misfortunes.
"I don’t think it was handled well in the beginning, and I don’t think it’s been handled well since then," one of them said. "And, rightly or wrongly, the leader wears it."
Commenting on Wasylycia-Leis’s defeat this week, the premier acknowledged he may have played a role in it.
"We know that some people felt jolted by the raising of the PST by one point and I take responsibility for that," Selinger told reporters Thursday after mayor-elect Brian Bowman’s crushing victory over Wasylycia-Leis, a former NDP MLA and MP. She finished with 32,473 fewer votes than in her first run for the job in 2010.
"I think there are things in that result that we should be concerned with and do something about," a high-ranking NDP MLA said. "We’ve always done well in Winnipeg, and that was not a result that we could say we did well at."
Wednesday night’s outcome shows voters were willing to hand the politically untested Bowman, described as a moderate conservative, the keys to the mayor’s office — and that gives ammunition to internal calls for Selinger to go.
If that wind of change was so prevalent Wednesday, what does it mean for a government that’s been in power for more than 15 years?
"Did people get that out of their system with this vote or will that continue?" the MLA said. "Greg’s a smart guy. He’s looked at all the polls. Whether it’s Angus Reid or Probe Research and others, he has to take a look at those and make a determination and have a plan to deal with it over the next year-and-a-half."
Those calling for Selinger to step down are quick to say he has accomplished a lot for the party. They note his decade of service as the province’s finance minister under former premier Gary Doer and the fact he led the party to a huge victory in the wake of the popular Doer’s departure.
They said they reluctantly came to the conclusion he must go.
"Nobody is enjoying any part of what is happening," one longtime party member said.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Updated on Friday, October 24, 2014 at 9:52 PM CDT: Clarifies headline