After fed-up voters gave the Manitoba NDP the boot five years ago, and recent polls show the Progressive Conservative government falling out of favour, one might expect a third, established party such as the Liberals to get a bump in the polls.
Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. Support for Manitoba Liberals has slipped from a high of 18 per cent in June to just 11 per cent in March, a Probe Research poll conducted in March showed. One in three adults said they didn't know enough about Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont — who's in front of the media at every available opportunity — to assess him as leader.
"It is a bit surprising," said Christopher Adams, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"Traditionally, between elections, people would park their votes with the Liberals, then closer to election day, decide 'Do I want the NDP or the PCs in government?'" Adams said Thursday. The Liberals usually get a bump in the polls between elections before Manitobans strategically place their vote, he said.
"This time, it's not happening," said Raymond Hebert, professor emeritus of political studies at the Université de Saint-Boniface. He thinks Manitoba voters are becoming more polarized.
"It seems like instead of parking their vote with the Liberals, as centre-left people often do, they seem to be going straight to the NDP — which is an interesting development in itself," Hebert said.
"Wab Kinew had a rough beginning as (NDP) leader," the veteran political observer said. The NDP was reduced to 14 seats in the 2016 election after a bitter leadership battle divided the party. In 2017, as its new leader, Kinew was left to pick up the pieces. Under his leadership, the party won 18 seats in the 2019 election. Now the party is ahead of the PCs in the polls for the second consecutive quarter.
"This is confirming that people are indicating that quite possibly they want a change — they're not willing to even pretend to go to a third party," Hebert said. "Their mind is already made up."
Lamont disagrees, and dismissed the polls' findings.
"The polls don’t capture our active growth," the Liberal leader said Thursday. "We are adding members from both the NDP and PCs across the province, have had successful fundraisers, and are already recruiting candidates and getting applications," he said in an email. The party is expected to file its financial returns with Elections Manitoba by the end of April after receiving a one-month extension.
"Polls capture a feeling, and campaigns make a difference. We are already on the ground building for the next byelection and election," Lamont stated.
"The idea that Manitoba can only have two parties is a myth that the NDP and PCs depend on to deny Manitobans choice," he said. "For more than 30 years, there have always been Manitoba Liberals in the legislature, addressing issues the NDP and PC alike want swept under the rug."
In 1988, Manitoba Liberals won 20 of the legislature's 57 seats - their best showing since 1953. Sharon Carstairs led them to official Opposition status with a minority PC government led by Gary Filmon. The NDP was reduced to third-party status with just 12 seats. In 1990, the Tories returned with a majority government and the NDP, led by Gary Doer, regained official Opposition status. The Liberal party was reduced to seven seats. It now has three.
The tables appear to be turning once more — the NDP is favoured by 42 per cent of voters compared to 33 per cent one year ago, and the PCs have fallen to 36 per cent support from 43 per cent a year ago — but don't expect the Liberals to make a comeback just yet, said Adams.
"People are not happy with Pallister and the PC government, and are making a decision: 'How do I get rid of this party I dislike? I go to the NDP,'" said Adams.
He praised Lamont for being a strong leader, and former Liberal leader and physician MLA Jon Gerrard for raising health-care issues, but said the Liberal caucus — with just three members and no official party status — is not playing a strong role.
"They don't look like a party about to dominate or be a viable choice," Adams said.
Hebert doesn't blame Lamont, either, for the party sagging in the polls. He said the Liberal leader won a byelection in 2018 to become the MLA for St. Boniface — the seat formerly held by NDP premier Greg Selinger.
"Dougald Lamont managed to get St. Boniface voters back to the Liberal fold," said Hebert. The Liberal leader's policies are "quite attractive" and he has solid, thoughtful positions on a wide range of issues, he said.
"One would have thought that would have some impact," he said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.