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This article was published 27/12/2019 (232 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is no coincidence that the last Probe Research-Free Press poll of the year — published just after Christmas — contains visions of political ghosts of the past, the present and, most importantly, the future.
The results are a bit surprising but don’t have much consequence at this point in the electoral cycle. Just three months after Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservatives captured their second consecutive majority government, Manitoba voters are having a bit of buyer’s remorse.
The Tories still lead but have lost support since the September election. Pallister and company captured 47 per cent of the popular vote in that election but are polling now at 42 per cent of respondents.
The bad news for the PCs is good news for the NDP, which now stands at 36 per cent, up five points from the election results. The Liberals (down one per cent) and the Greens (up two per cent) have more or less held firm.
Tories will be quick to point out the first poll in the post-election period is hardly meaningful when their government could remain in power for another four years. And they are not wrong; despite the fact that poll respondents have lost some faith in the re-election of the PCs, there is no immediate threat contained in these poll numbers.
That does not mean, however, that the Tories can’t make use of these numbers, which remind us about the political mistakes of the past, present and, potentially, the future.
Voter support is a fickle commodity, to be sure. Voters can love you one moment and then turn on you with particular ferocity the next. In other words, just because I voted for you in September doesn’t mean I can’t turn my back on you in October or, more importantly, the next time we go to the polls.
If you’re a Tory, the big takeaway from this poll is pretty clear: if their government has the same leader and the same agenda, the third majority is going to be extremely difficult to pull off.
A lot of that has to do with the perfect storm of conditions — our ghosts of political past — that have allowed Pallister to dominate two elections despite possessing the highest net negative rating of any leader in Manitoba.
In 2016, the NDP was in a shambles, weighed down by extremely poor fiscal management and vicious infighting. The Liberals, faced with numerous open doors to electoral success, kept stumbling into the door frame on their way to relevance. The Greens, while earnest, are an unproven brand in Manitoba.
The most recent election offered a similar scenario: Pallister and his high negative metrics triumphed largely because his opponents did not mount a viable threat.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who is dogged by allegations of domestic abuse in his past, continues to struggle to find a winning personal brand. Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont has yet to show he has the right stuff to rise from policy wonk to political leader.
The lack of a viable alternative has long served political leaders looking to create dynasties. After winning a relatively close race in 1999, former NDP premier Gary Doer won big majorities in 2003 and 2007 thanks in large part to the Tories, who were stuck in a prolonged rebuilding mode. Still, Doer had something else that made him formidable: he was unquestionably the most popular politician in Manitoba during his time in power.
Winning two big majorities with negative personal approval ratings is the political equivalent of winning a marathon with only one leg. In other words, it’s both amazing and improbable.
That brings us to the ghosts of political present. You need only ask Colleen Mayer, the former Tory MLA and cabinet minister who met unanticipated defeat in the September election, about how frightening the current political environment is for Progressive Conservatives.
Mayer was considered an up-and-comer in the Pallister cabinet, but she could not survive a concerted effort from New Democrats to take back St. Vital, a constituency they held throughout the Doer-Greg Selinger years.
Mayer could have had a lot more company in the loser’s circle if the NDP and Liberals had the financial resources to fight a true provincewide campaign. The Tories ultimately triumphed in surprisingly tight races in Dauphin, McPhillips and Southdale while maintaining several others through the strong showing of Liberal and/or Green candidates, who split the anybody-but-Tory vote.
If the Tories are in it to win it in 2023, they will be looking to the ghosts of political future that haunt this Probe poll. It won’t take a Dickensian epiphany to realize the Tories will need a different leader in four years.
Although there is no way to anticipate whether the NDP support will continue to grow and the Tory support will wane, there are structural problems in Tory support that will, eventually, bring the party down.
Chief among those structural challenges is the declining Tory support in Winnipeg. In this most recent poll, the NDP now has a double-digit lead on the Tories (43 per cent to 32 per cent) in Winnipeg. The Tories have an even larger lead outside the city, but here’s the rub in that equation: Winnipeg has more seats.
Many political observers believe Pallister will leave before the next election, although he enjoys every opportunity to disparage those rumours without really denying them.
An increasing number of Tory supporters realize that despite all of Pallister’s accomplishments — a virtually balanced budget and a one-percentage-point cut to the PST chief among them — it will be difficult to win a third majority. Whether or not Pallister realizes that is another question.
Pallister is not a leader who has demonstrated an overabundance of self-awareness. Still, at some point, he will have to acknowledge the NDP’s best chance to get back into power will be the opportunity to face Pallister one more time.
A failure to see that spectre lurking in his future may end up punctuating a sparkling political career with a disappointing finish.
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.
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