For some, it was a week too late. For others, more than three years overdue. Either way, former premier Greg Selinger finally decided it was time to step down from provincial politics.
Confirmed on the first day back from a long weekend, Selinger’s announcement he would resign his seat in the legislature March 7 was more anti-climactic than anything.
In many ways, this was a decision years in the making. In 2015, he was attacked from within by five dissident cabinet ministers who wanted him to step down. He refused and was ultimately rebuked by voters in the April 2016 general election. More recently, he has been drawn into the sexual harassment scandal swirling around former cabinet colleague Stan Struthers. Add it all up, and you can see how it was only a matter of time.
It is too early to fully assess the impact of Selinger’s departure on the NDP and the other parties that are licking their chops at the possibility of competing in a byelection to fill his St. Boniface seat. It is not a stretch to say this byelection may be among the most hotly contested in the province’s recent political history.
We have no clear indication yet from Premier Brian Pallister about when the byelection will take place. But this will be a battle in which all three major political parties will be able to see a legitimate path to victory.
The NDP has little to rely on entering the byelection in St. Boniface. It is a party accused of tolerating sexual harassment. It is led by a man who is dogged by allegations of domestic abuse. It’s not particularly well-funded. That’s hardly a recipe for electoral success.
If the NDP has anything going for it, it’s desperation. It can’t afford to lose the riding if it hopes to remain relevant to voters in the 2020 election. And desperation can be a powerful motivator for volunteers and fundraisers — two things every successful political campaign must have.
There is little advance intelligence on who exactly will pursue the St. Boniface nomination. NDP sources say Leader Wab Kinew would prefer to see several prospective candidates selling memberships and duking it out for the nomination. Insiders believe books of membership forms are already being summoned from the party’s Winnipeg headquarters.
The NDP may find its desperation nearly matched by newly elected Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, who doesn’t hold a seat in the legislature. There is legitimate hope in the provincial Gritdom that Lamont could make some real noise, particularly if the federal Liberal machine that helped MP Dan Vandal get elected decides to lend a hand.
It’s also important to note this may be Lamont’s only real shot at competing for a seat before the next election. Ideally, he would have loved to run in River Heights, but there are no credible signs Jon Gerrard, the Liberal that currently holds the seat, is willing to step aside. St. Boniface is Lamont’s big moment.
The governing Progressive Conservatives will also have a legitimate shot at the Winnipeg riding. The Tories still have a difficult time accepting they lost in St. Boniface in 2016 to the leader of a dysfunctional political party that had only months earlier gutted itself in a nearly unprecedented display of bitter infighting. Tories told themselves that if there was ever going to an opportunity for them to claim St. Boniface, it would have been then.
But Selinger won, and rather comfortably. He did lose significant ground against both the PCs and the Liberals. Could the governing Tories use that experience, and the absence of an NDP incumbent, to break through in the byelection?
On the positive side of the equation, the Tories will have more money and other sophisticated resources than the other two parties. Although financial resources are perhaps a little less important in a byelection — where turnout is a fraction of what it is in general elections — it is still a significant advantage.
The Tories will also have the benefit of human resources that can be marshalled from surrounding constituencies, all of which turned blue in the last provincial election.
And thanks to the powers of the premier’s office, Pallister will have full control over the timing of the byelection. In the case of Point Douglas, the premier moved relatively quickly. Former NDP MLA Kevin Chief resigned in early January; Pallister scheduled a byelection in mid-June. If the premier follows that same process, a spring byelection will be in the offing.
It all seems positive enough for the Tories until you consider the byelection will likely come after the next provincial budget is tabled. Although there will be a good news budget at some point in the Tory timeline, it won’t be this year. Another big, heaping spoonful of Pallister austerity won’t do much to cultivate voter affection.
And if the NDP and Liberals are successful at making this byelection a referendum on the Pallister government’s controversial health-care reforms, a Tory byelection candidate could find him or herself swimming upstream the entire campaign.
Selinger likely should have stepped down months, if not years, ago. But he didn’t. And his parting gift to his party and the electorate will be one of the most fascinating, most competitive byelections in recent memory.
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.