Premier Brian Pallister has officially entered "the Selinger zone."
Students of recent Manitoba political history will remember, in 2014 and 2015, there was an active campaign within the NDP to force premier Greg Selinger to step down. Selinger ultimately retained his leadership, but he and his party were never the same.
That was abundantly clear in December 2015, with a provincial election just a few months away, when a poll done by Probe Research and the Free Press showed the Pallister-led Tories with 43 per cent support, followed by Rana Bokhari's Liberals at 29 per cent, and Selinger's NDP at a lowly 22 per cent.
Not surprisingly, the NDP was decimated in the April 2016 election, going from 37 seats to just 14. The PCs won one of the largest majorities in the province's history.
The lesson from Selinger's defeat was pretty obvious: political leaders who stubbornly cling to power long after they have lost support are paving the way for the ruination of their party. It's a lesson Pallister should be taking to heart.
A Probe/Free Press poll released Friday shows the Wab Kinew-led Opposition New Democrats leading the way with 47 per cent support provincewide. The Tories were at 29 per cent, and the Liberals trailing badly at 14 per cent. While the Tories are not in third place, there are other, more troubling data points for them.
In Winnipeg — where majority mandates are made or broken — the NDP is leading 55 per cent to the Tories' 22 per cent. In 2015, the Tories led in Winnipeg with 35 per cent, but the NDP and Liberals were close behind at 29 per cent.
The more important question for the Tories to consider right now is how they got into this situation.
In the 2016 election, Selinger was struggling under the burden of 17 years of NDP rule. He turned the inevitable winds of change that surround a long-serving government into a hurricane with sloppy fiscal management that amassed huge deficits and (most notably) when he ordered a one-point increase in the PST to fund infrastructure — after promising he would not.
For the Pallister government, the missteps are almost too numerous to mention: a botched reorganization of the health-care system that closed emergency rooms in Winnipeg and lengthened wait times; an equally controversial restructuring of public education; open warfare with public-sector workers through an unlawful wage freeze; political manipulation of Manitoba Hydro rates; and a five-year campaign of austerity that left the province short-staffed and under-resourced when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Ah, yes, the pandemic. Under Pallister's watch, Manitoba has twice suffered the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in North America. The health crisis has claimed more than 1,000 local lives. Taken together, there is lots of motivation for voters to abandon the Tories.
Pallister and his most loyal supporters will insist there have been some wins over the last five years: a one-point PST cut, a smaller government and a briefly balanced the provincial budget. In the last budget, the premier delivered the first of two deep cuts to education property taxes.
Unfortunately for Pallister, the poll results show the tax cuts have done little to assuage broader concerns about the quantity and quality of core government services.
Is there a chance the PCs can use the next two-plus years to pull victory from what appears to be the ever-widening jaws of electoral defeat? Absolutely, although all paths to salvation go through a convention to pick a new leader.
This is where the Selinger and Pallister stories intersect the most.
Selinger's fatal mistake was not listening to the advice from within his own party to step down. The more people raised the issue, the deeper he dug in. Ultimately, so deep, the hole became his political grave.
There is no evidence anyone has taken it upon themselves to give Pallister similar advice. Then again, given his well-known propensity to fly solo on almost all policy decisions, it does not appear the premier gives many people in cabinet or caucus the opportunity to discreetly share their thoughts on the matter.
If someone did have the temerity to bring up the possibility of having him step down sooner rather than later, they would have every justification. Pallister's management of the pandemic, in particular, has galvanized public opinion.
In a separate Probe poll question, a remarkable 71 per cent of Manitobans said they had lost faith in the government to manage the pandemic. There is no coming back from a result like that.
Pallister remains coy whenever he is asked about retirement, and he is asked often. He has said in the past he would stay "as long as Manitobans want me here." Pallister has also promised to stay on until the job he signed up for — fixing health care, stabilizing fiscal matters, cutting taxes — is done.
Unfortunately for Tories, it's starting to look like part of the "job" Pallister has yet to finish is the ruination of the Progressive Conservative party. He's not quite there yet but, as these poll results show, he's perilously close.
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.