Opinion

Politicians often say the only poll that matters is the one on election day.

Politicians often say the only poll that matters is the one on election day.

But what happens if, in the face of really bad inter-election poll results, those same politicians don't stick around long enough to fight the next campaign?

That is largely the dilemma facing members of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, which is facing an existential political crisis triggered by the rapidly eroding support for Premier Brian Pallister.

A Winnipeg Free Press-Probe Research poll shows the governing PCs trailing the opposition NDP by a significant margin.

The province-wide gap is modest (42 per cent for the NDP, 36 per cent for the Tories) but the NDP advantage in Winnipeg is now 22 points — a significant margin that falls well outside any mitigating factors, such as sample size or margin of error.

Federal Tories unaffected by Pallister's unpopularity: poll

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A cowboy hat is left inside an empty ballroom at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Saturday, August 25, 2018. (Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press files)
A cowboy hat is left inside an empty ballroom at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Saturday, August 25, 2018. (Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press files)

Posted: 4:00 AM Apr. 5, 2021

OTTAWA — If a federal election were held last month, most Manitoba MPs would have kept their jobs, according to new polling that suggests Premier Brian Pallister’s unpopularity isn’t hurting his federal cousins.

Probe Research’s recurring survey of Manitobans’ federal voting preferences puts the Tories at 37 per cent across Manitoba and the Liberals at 29 per cent, with the NDP following by four points.

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The poll strongly suggests the main catalyst for this precipitous drop in support is the heightened disapproval respondents expressed about Pallister: 62 per cent of all Manitobans, and 68 per cent of Winnipeggers, disapprove of his performance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

In net approval scores, that gives Pallister a minus-28; NDP Leader Wab Kinew was at plus-17, with Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont nearly break-even at plus-two.

Those results have PC backbenchers and cabinet ministers thinking long and hard about their political futures.

This is the kind of problem that can eat a party from the inside out, causing some elected members to bow out of the next election and discourage others from doing the fundraising and organizing that is the backbone of any successful re-election effort.

This uncertainty is further exacerbated by the pandemic, which has suspended traditional constituency activities — speeches, coffee parties, door-to-door canvassing — that are the lifeblood of all successful careers in elected office.

Add it all together, and you've got a profound morale problem in Tory ranks.

"When you take into account everything that is going on, I'm honestly not sure if I have the energy to go on," said one veteran Tory MLA.

If past experience is an indicator, many of those elected officials will need a major rebound in poll results or some clarity about Pallister's retirement plans before they can rededicate themselves. Unfortunately, the former relies the latter — and to date, the premier has only said he will remain until the pandemic is fully under control.

Many observers have theorized it could mean a departure as early as the fall, when most Manitobans will have been vaccinated and — notwithstanding the challenges of COVID-19 variants — life will be more or less getting back to normal.

That timeline gained some traction last week, when Pallister made off-the-cuff remarks at a news conference about how he would likely retire around the same time as veteran Free Press legislative reporter Larry Kusch, who was in attendance.

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister made off-the-cuff remarks at a news conference last week about his likely retirement date. (Kevin King / Pool files)

KEVIN KING/WINNIPEG SUN

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister made off-the-cuff remarks at a news conference last week about his likely retirement date. (Kevin King / Pool files)

Kusch had planned on retiring in December (a fact at least some of the premier's senior staff knew) but recently decided to move the date up to June.

When Kusch told him about his updated plan, Pallister seemed genuinely gobsmacked. It was obvious he never intended to float the idea of a June departure.

Still, the exchange added weight to the idea December might serve as a launching pad for Pallister's retirement.

If so, it would almost certainly be a game-changer for the Tories.

The next provincial election is scheduled for the fall of 2023.

If Pallister left in December, that would give the party nearly two years to find a new leader and shake off some of the scuffs he left on the Tory brand. The PCs would still have to elect the right leader, but any such move holds open the hope of a change in support.

It also allows the Tories to take a glass-half-full view of current poll results.

Even now, most know no poll nearly three years before the next election has any real bearing on the final vote tallies. That said, Pallister carries a burden other leaders, in general have not: he is considerably less popular than his party.

In 2016, when he won his first majority, Pallister was slightly less popular than his party. In 2019, his net approval rating was a worrisome minus-14, making Pallister one of the least popular premiers to win a second majority term.

As long as Pallister is leading the Tories, they will be vulnerable in Winnipeg, particularly since the Probe poll results showed respondents are not parking support with the Liberals; the NDP appear to be reaping all of the benefits of the declining Tory support.

If that were to continue — a big "if" — the Tories would face huge losses in the provincial capital.

No matter how you slice it, the PC government is unlikely to see a meaningful rebound in support until it has a new leader.

The longer he stays, the worse the situation will become and the more new candidates the Tories will have to recruit for the next election.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

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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