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Change in tone doesn’t guarantee change in policy

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SINCE taking office, Premier Heather Stefanson has promised a new direction that will push the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party away from the legacy of Brian Pallister.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/01/2022 (326 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SINCE taking office, Premier Heather Stefanson has promised a new direction that will push the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party away from the legacy of Brian Pallister.

To that end, she appointed new senior leaders in the positions of chief of staff, and clerk of the executive council to help deliver on this new tone. While the PCs have been working to rebrand themselves in a kinder, less abrasive light, the reality is that the policies of this government have not changed.

Barely two months into her role as premier, Stefanson has missed three crucial opportunities to change policy.

The first missed opportunity involved the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) labour dispute, in which members were forced to strike after the provincial government once again chose to impose a wage mandate on an independent institution. While targets are not new in Manitoba, it was then-premier Pallister who first proposed further cuts to the universities operating grant should wages go above the mandate.

Despite a surplus that was created by rising tuition fees and COVID-19-related savings, the university faced punitive measures from the government.

Stefanson chose to keep the mandate, which resulted in a 35-day strike that damaged the reputation of Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institution. The mandate had been instituted under Pallister during the summer of 2021, and Stefanson declined to remove it, which only provoked a strike.

Such a move was politically unpopular, as the PCs continue to struggle with both post-secondary graduates and with constituents in vote-rich Winnipeg (See probe poll). If the PCs want to be competitive in the next election, they will need to improve their standing with both of these demographic groups.

Stefanson has missed an opportunity to build back that crucial support, which could have come at no additional cost to her laser focus on financial austerity.

The second missed opportunity relates to the pandemic, as we also see a continuation of policy around the province’s handling of COVID-19. The premier again resisted calls and pleas from medical experts and health-care workers to limit gatherings over the holiday season, and once again, Manitoba has fallen into a COVID-19 trap, with hospitalizations and case counts rising sharply. It seems inevitable that the province will have to turn to more dire measures in order to protect the functionality of our health-care system.

The Stefanson government has continued to follow the Pallister approach in emphasizing partnerships with groups such as chambers of commerce instead of its own public service. While other provinces were ensuring rapid tests were publicly available through liquor stores and lotteries, the Stefanson government kept in place a program to distribute them exclusively to businesses through the chamber. Only after political blowback did the government alter the program.

Finally, we see the PCs continue to marginalize organized labour, in particular the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. In announcing their remote-learning plan, the premier spoke of “stakeholders” who had pushed them to delay the start of school. This was clearly a deliberate move, akin to when Education Minister Cliff Cullen accused the MTS of “spreading misinformation” around the since-dumped Bill 64.

Similarly, Cullen noted in a news release that additional funding was set aside “to help address wage agreements for teachers and other cost pressures.” These funding pressures have come as the province kept education funding below the rate of inflation and has had to fight local teachers’ associations through an arbitration process.

While the PCs were pleased to withdraw the never-passed but ever-imposing Public Services Sustainability Act, the reality is that they continue to attempt to dictate the terms of public-sector compensation. In this instance, Stefanson has continued to follow the policies of Pallister.

Recent polls show that while the retraction of Bill 64 has likely helped the PCs regain support in rural Manitoba, they are still struggling in Winnipeg. While the party continues to attempt to rebrand itself, the reality is that voters will likely continue to look at the province’s performance around health and education.

Continued austerity and a lack of a proactive approach to COVID-19, while perhaps popular with their rural base, will only hurt them within the Perimeter.

If the PCs hope to win re-election, Stefanson must shuffle her cabinet immediately and appoint strong cabinet ministers into the roles of health and education (primary and post-secondary). They must demonstrate that they can stride closer to the political centre in order to avoid the continued alienation of voters in the swing seats of Winnipeg suburbs.

Otherwise, the PCs may be headed for another 16 years in political opposition.

Zach Fleisher is the campaigns co-ordinator with Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) and Karine Levasseur is a professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

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