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Mis-timed mutiny created PC predicament

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One year ago today, then-Manitoba premier Brian Pallister was told during a government caucus retreat in Brandon he had lost the confidence of his caucus, and that he would be removed as Progressive Conservative party leader if he did not step down.

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Opinion

One year ago today, then-Manitoba premier Brian Pallister was told during a government caucus retreat in Brandon he had lost the confidence of his caucus, and that he would be removed as Progressive Conservative party leader if he did not step down.

With the writing on the wall, Pallister announced the next day that “After almost 10 years as leader of our party and more than five years as our province’s premier, I believe that now is the time for a new leader and a premier to take our province forward.”

“I don’t think there’s a better time than now for me to step aside,” he added.

FILE - David Lipnowski/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Brian Pallister waves after announcing on Aug. 10, 2021 that he would be stepping down as Manitoba’s premier.

Pallister formally resigned as premier at the end of last August and stepped down as MLA for the Fort Whyte riding a few weeks later. He has since vanished from the province’s political radar.

While his sudden resignation as premier was unexpected by the public, it was the final act of a mutiny that had been months in the making – a scheme orchestrated to put Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson in the premier’s chair.

The plan gained momentum from the results of a Probe Research poll a few weeks earlier, which revealed support for the governing PCs had plunged to 29 per cent province-wide, and just 22 per cent within Winnipeg. With numbers like that, the government would be wiped out in the next election.

Then came Pallister’s widely condemned response to the Canada Day protest that occurred on the legislative building grounds. That led to the resignation of respected Indigenous-relations minister Eileen Clarke, who made it clear Pallister’s comments had played a key role in her decision to step down.

With Clarke’s departure, Pallister’s fate was sealed. Other members of caucus and cabinet quickly distanced themselves from his remarks. Weeks later, he was given the choice of walking the plank or being shoved.

One year later, it’s easy to see the chain of events that resulted in Pallister’s removal and the installation of Stefanson as premier. Far less clear, however, is whether the scheme to replace Pallister with Stefanson was the smart move for the PC caucus to take at that time.

With the benefit of hindsight, there is ample evidence to suggest it wasn’t.

A poll conducted in June by the Angus Reid Institute found just 22 per cent of Manitobans approve of Stefanson’s performance as premier. That’s 11 points lower than Pallister’s approval rating in June of last year.

A Probe Research poll in June found that a whopping 44 per cent of respondents “strongly disapprove” of Stefanson’s performance, while another 16 per cent “moderately disapprove.” Just four per cent “strongly approve.”

That same poll found that Stefanson’s Tories trailed the NDP by a 45-35 margin province-wide, and by a 52-25 margin in Winnipeg. Within the margin of error, those numbers are about the same as Probe found in March of 2021. In other words, the government has no better chance of being re-elected with Stefanson as leader than it would have had under Pallister.

But here’s the thing: Pallister had already announced he would be stepping down as Tory leader before the next election. The only question was when that would happen.

By controlling the timing of his departure, he was positioning himself to take all the blame for his government’s handling of the pandemic, education reform, labour relations and Crown corporations. It would have handed a new leader a clean slate going into the next election, giving the government its best chance of re-election.

Some obvious questions arise from those facts: what was the urgency to oust Pallister, when the next election was still more than two years away, and it was already known that he would be stepping down before the election?

On what basis did caucus believe Stefanson could improve the government’s chances of re-election? As deputy premier for almost five years, she was the former premier’s most trusted lieutenant. Her fingerprints are on every decision made by the PC government since it assumed power.

With the government still wallowing in the polls, the election just 14 months away and Stefanson even less popular than Pallister was at the end of his tenure, what does the PC caucus do now?

Is it time for yet another mutiny?

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Twitter: @deverynross

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