Tories focus on winning Fort Whyte


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There is a widespread perception that Premier Heather Stefanson and her cabinet colleagues are cowering in the shadows, afraid of facing the media and the public. That’s not quite true.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/01/2022 (325 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There is a widespread perception that Premier Heather Stefanson and her cabinet colleagues are cowering in the shadows, afraid of facing the media and the public. That’s not quite true.

As COVID-19 case counts climb throughout the province, the silence right now from the premier, Health Minister Audrey Gordon and other government officials is likely the first component of the government’s political strategy for the next three months — part of a plan focused on winning the upcoming Fort Whyte byelection.

Stefanson and her advisors aren’t dummies, and she isn’t hiding under her desk right now. Unlike her predecessor, Brian Pallister, Manitoba’s new premier doesn’t welcome the spotlight and microphone. She would far rather stand in the back of the room, scheming and planning.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Don’t expect to see Premier Heather Stefanson (right) and Health and Seniors Care Minister Audrey Gordon (left) in front of TV cameras and microphones in the next few weeks.

She patiently orchestrated a caucus-wide revolt that ousted Pallister — a coup he never really saw coming. Then she and her team made deals to keep potential rivals out of the PC Party leadership race, set the rules to keep other likely leadership contenders out of the contest, then made more deals with groups of potential supporters to give her the votes she needed to become leader and premier.

That’s determined, skilful work, pulled off in a high-stakes setting. It reminds us that it’s a mistake to underestimate Stefanson and her advisors. They undoubtedly have a plan to get through the next few months, and I think it looks like this:

First, they believe there is little they can do now to stop the current wave of COVID-19 that is spreading throughout the province. They also know public opinion is split on shutting down schools and businesses.

It appears their strategy is to ride out the wave, betting (based on what’s happening in other provinces) the situation will improve dramatically in a few weeks. They will likely increase access to masks and testing, but there will be no major moves to solve a problem they believe may solve itself next month.

Until then, they will let the doctors do most of the talking and keep the premier and health minister far away from cameras and microphones as much as possible. It’s the same hide-and-seek strategy Stefanson used as health minister.

When either of Stefanson or Gordon must face the media, they will repeat bland talking points again and again. They aren’t going to give the opposition, or the media, video clips that can be used against them later.

They will try to use the upcoming cabinet shuffle as both a distraction from the COVID-19 crisis and an opportunity to put a fresh coat of paint on the government. The spin will be that the new cabinet represents a new government with new priorities and a new, positive, collaborative attitude. Whether the public buys the pitch remains to be seen.

Assuming COVID-19 case numbers start dropping as expected, February will be full of government announcements by cabinet ministers in new portfolios, with plenty of hints of new spending and priorities in the March budget.

Team Stefanson will try to dominate the airwaves with positive news during that period, because a byelection must be held in the Fort Whyte riding by no later than March 29. Because the writ must be dropped between 28 days and 34 days before the election date, the byelection must be called by March 1 at the latest.

Once the byelection is called, an advertising blackout period begins and almost all government announcements and advertising are prohibited until after the byelection. The blackout rules do not apply, however, to information about public-health matters, nor about a budget that has been tabled in the Legislative Assembly.

Those are big loopholes. The government can call the Fort Whyte byelection and still make COVID-related spending commitments. It can table a budget with lots of goodies for the riding, then advertise it at taxpayer expense.

Just imagine the impact of a March 17 budget speech that announces a new school in Fort Whyte, or new recreation facilities. It could make the difference in what will likely be a tight three-way race.

That’s what I think the plan is. It rests on the hope Manitobans will have short memories and be in a forgiving mood.

For a party on the ropes in the polls, in danger of losing what was one of its safest ridings, it’s really the only strategy they’ve got.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon Twitter: @deverynross


Updated on Tuesday, January 11, 2022 11:12 AM CST: Corrects date to March 1

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