In Manitoba politics, what is the gift for opposition parties that keeps on giving? The propensity for Tory premiers to take vacations at the wrong possible times.
Last week, while most of the province was enjoying the public school system spring break, Premier Heather Stefanson told the Free Press she was “away on holiday with my son on spring break.” That would seem to be a reasonable thing for any political leader to do, as long as you are not ignoring any pressing matters or missing any important events.
This is where the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair in Brandon comes in. Cancelled the past two years because of the pandemic, the province’s biggest and most important agricultural fair was back this year. Back as well were expectations the province’s most prominent politicians would make the trip to Manitoba’s second-largest city to pay homage to the province’s agricultural community.
Johnson Belgians of Unity, Sask., round the boards at the MB Hydro Four Horse Team Championship at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair Thursday at Westoba Place. (Chelsea Kemp / The Brandon Sun files)
For Tories, who draw a disproportionate amount of their support from rural ridings that rely heavily on agricultural industries, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Visit the fair, make an announcement, get your picture taken.
Except that Stefanson didn’t do that. As mentioned earlier, she was away somewhere (she wouldn’t say exactly where) on vacation with her son. It’s an odd decision given the state of Manitoba politics right now.
Stefanson is, according to several opinion polls the least-popular premier in the country. Manitobans strongly disapprove of her government’s pandemic response. In seat-rich Winnipeg, the Tories are bleeding support to the opposition NDP. With an election scheduled no later than October 2023, events like this are must-attends for any Tory premier holding out hope of re-election.
Stefanson is particularly vulnerable on the issue of ill-timed vacations, given that her predecessor, Brian Pallister, made ill-timed vacations a bloody art form.
Pallister proved over and over again nothing was going to get in the way of his R&R. He was caught repeatedly spending inordinate amounts of time at his vacation property in Costa Rica. He frequently fabricated business trips during the pandemic that were thinly veiled excuses for mountain biking or visiting family in other provinces. In 2019, he infamously billed taxpayers for a trip to France to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and then skipped the main ceremony so that he and his wife, Esther, could enjoy a vacation.
Brian Pallister runs the gravel roads by his family’s farmstead near Edwin, which is southwest of Portage la Prairie, in 2016. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)
Even when he wasn’t leaving the province, Pallister took flack for bolting every Thursday for his house just east of Portage la Prairie, enjoying multiple long weekends that most other working people could only hope for.
With that kind of baggage hanging over her head, Stefanson should have known better than to continue the tradition by skipping the winter fair.
It should be noted that although many NDP MLAs attended the fair, leader Wab Kinew was also a no-show. As was the case with Stefanson, he was away on holiday with his family.
However, the criticism levelled at Stefanson can also be pointed in Kinew’s direction. Opinion polls show him with a strong chance of forming government in 2023. Given that he’s auditioning to be Manitoba’s first minister, he should have been in Brandon.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont was in Brandon for the fair. Of the three main party leaders in Manitoba, only Lamont demonstrated the work ethic that many voters demand and expect.
Why is the fair in particular, and big public events in general, so important for politicians? It’s a chance to meet actual people in person. Although the sixth wave of Omicron-inspired COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc, people are getting out and doing more things. And even in an age of social media and Zoom calls, good-old fashioned face time with voters is a valuable retail political tool.
There is one alternative explanation for her absence. Having registered as a flop with voters, it is possible the Tories decided she was not the best person to represent the party in Brandon, a small city with a largely rural sensibility.
If that’s the case, and Stefanson cannot serve as a net benefit to her party’s re-election plans, then the Tories have much bigger things to worry about than who skips the winter fair.
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