Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/12/2020 (290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For anyone who makes a living in politics, this is what an existential crisis looks like.
For the past month, Premier Brian Pallister and his government have been on the wrong end of a series of unflattering, even alarming public opinion polls. The latest is a Free Press-Probe Research survey that shows, only a year into its second majority mandate, the Pallister Tories are trailing the NDP on a provincewide basis by a small, but significant, gap greater than the margin or error.
In Winnipeg, the Tories trail the NDP by a remarkable 16 points.
On the same day the Free Press-Probe poll surfaced, Angus Reid released a national survey on provincial pandemic responses. It shows the Pallister government has less support (31 per cent) for its pandemic response than any other government in Canada.
These results come on the heels of a Probe poll in November that showed a profound collapse in support for the Pallister government's pandemic response, and an earlier Angus Reid poll that showed Pallister was the least popular premier in the country.
It's at this point we must mention the caveats.
Polls ebb and flow. (After disastrous results in a Probe poll in June, the Pallister government's support rebounded in a September survey.) A poll that is closer to the last election than it is to the next election rarely serves as an accurate predictor of a party's fortunes.
It should be mentioned that Manitoba is certainly not the only province where citizens appear to have lost faith in their premier and government. Angus Reid noted that while a majority of respondents outside of Alberta and Manitoba approved of their government's handling of the pandemic, support for just about all governments had dropped "precipitously" since June.
That said, it is rare to see a governing party sink low enough in the first quarter of a new term that it is trailing another party. For that reason alone, you can bet that whatever effect this poll has on the public, it will have a much greater effect on the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.
Senior party sources confirmed that concerns about the party's fortunes in Winnipeg and in swing ridings in rural Manitoba is amping up significantly, even with an election years away. Already, long-serving Tories are talking openly about the ridings they may very well lose in the next election if Pallister cannot turn things around. Others are musing aloud about whether they should pursue political opportunities at other levels, or leave politics altogether.
While Pallister is widely believed to be contemplating retirement before the next election, there is increasing interest among opinion-leading party members about whether someone should ask Pallister to set a date for his departure.
Not that Pallister will listen to any of that chatter.
Ambivalent about advice from all but a handful of like-minded cabinet ministers and staffers, the Tory government's pandemic response has evolved into "the Brian show." Apart from senior public health officials, and with very few exceptions, Pallister has eclipsed all others in his government when it comes to daily briefings or announcements.
When new enforcement measures are announced, it is Pallister and not Justice Minister Cliff Cullen at the microphone. When rapid COVID-19 testing was to be made available to teachers, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen was nowhere to be seen. When a new small business grant program was announced, no one seemed to be able to find Finance Minister Scott Fielding.
However, dominating live appearances is not the only problem.
Right now, the odds are very high that any time the premier makes himself available to the news media, he will create headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Whether it is his repeated, deliberate attempts to misrepresent statistical data, or inflaming racial tensions with his inadvisable comments about Indigenous Manitobans pushing non-Indigenous Manitobans to the back of the line for COVID-19 vaccine, Pallister has shown a remarkable capacity for political self-harm and an aversion to political accountability.
Throughout the fall, as Pallister has been soundly criticized for the quality and quantity of his pandemic response, he has attempted to reframe his plunging popularity as a reaction to unpopular restrictions. Remember, he tearfully described himself as the man who was stealing Christmas from people.
Other polls have told us pretty clearly, however, that Manitobans were less concerned with the restrictions he introduced as they were with his reluctance to introduce them sooner.
The big question for Tories is whether a competent vaccine distribution will be the game changer that erases the fear and loathing that an increasing number of Manitobans have for the premier.
The slow pace at which the vaccine will become available is actually a blessing to all provincial governments; it gives everyone time to test out logistics, identify problems and introduce remedies long before the gross majority of vaccine supply arrives in Manitoba. We also have the benefit of watching and learning from larger, more expedited vaccine rollouts in places such as the United Kingdom.
A timely and competent vaccine distribution would heal some of the wounds Pallister has inflicted on himself and his party. Whether it's enough for Manitobans to forgive him is another question.
The worst-case scenario for a growing constituency of Tories is that Pallister may insist on waiting around long enough to answer that question before deciding to leave.
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.