Next poll numbers carry high stakes

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We are approaching the moment of truth for the Heather Stefanson government – the point at which we are able to accurately discern whether our Progressive Conservative government has any realistic hope of being re-elected in the next province-wide general election.

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Opinion

We are approaching the moment of truth for the Heather Stefanson government – the point at which we are able to accurately discern whether our Progressive Conservative government has any realistic hope of being re-elected in the next province-wide general election.

Sometime in the next few days, Probe Research and the Free Press will release the results of Probe’s quarterly poll of Manitobans’ provincial voting intentions. The June poll showed the Manitoba New Democrats leading the PCs by a 45-35 margin throughout the province, with the Liberals trailing at 13 per cent.

That poll found the Tories led the NDP by a 50 to 34 margin outside of Winnipeg, but the NDP held a whopping 52 to 25 lead inside the Perimeter. With numbers like that, and the lion’s share of seats being in Winnipeg, the NDP would easily form a majority government.

John Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Premier Heather Stefanson meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sept. 1 in Winnipeg. Since assuming the role of premier, Stefanson has sought to build a more productive relationship with Ottawa.

The poll also revealed NDP Leader Wab Kinew had a 46 per cent approval rating, with Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont far behind at 28 per cent. Just four per cent of respondents strongly approved of the job done by Stefanson, and just 16 per cent said they “somewhat approve.”

Those were the June numbers, reflecting a bungled launch of Stefanson’s mandate as premier, during which she and her staff made several missteps that undoubtedly hurt the Tories’ polling numbers.

Since then, they have worked hard to change Manitobans’ perception of the premier and her government. That effort began with re-hiring veteran Tory fixer Philip Houde as chief of staff, replacing the seemingly underqualified and overwhelmed Jordan Sisson.

Under Houde’s guidance, Stefanson has taken a different approach to being premier, and a markedly different approach to that of her predecessor, Brian Pallister.

With a new wardrobe, new glasses and a smile on her face, she spent the summer traveling throughout the province. If there was a fair, festival or parade happening, the odds were high she would be there. She has shaken more hands and met more Manitobans in the past three months than she likely had during her many years as an MLA.

In order to further distance themselves from the Pallister government in which they all served, Stefanson and her ministers have also spent the summer making very un-Pallister-like spending commitments. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, much of it unbudgeted, has been unveiled.

After six years of unflinching and unapologetic fiscal discipline, the Stefanson Tories are suddenly spending money like Greg Selinger’s NDP government in its desperate final year.

There have also been signs that, unlike her predecessor, Stefanson is trying to build a more productive, respectful relationship with the Trudeau government in Ottawa.

There have been several federal-provincial news conferences over the summer, during which hundreds of millions of dollars in joint spending commitments have been announced. Most notably, Stefanson presided over an event on Aug. 16 at which it was revealed that the feds and the province are contributing a total of $368 million toward the second phase of upgrades to Winnipeg’s North End sewage treatment plant.

There have also been several events and announcements over the summer at which Stefanson and her ministers have attempted to re-frame the government as more sensitive and collaborative than the Pallister government was on social and Indigenous issues.

All of that activity, all of that spending and all of those expressions of concern were planned in advance, with one objective in mind: changing Manitobans’ perception of the Stefanson government and regaining enough voter support to give the government a realistic chance of being re-elected.

With the imminent release of the latest Probe poll, we will soon know if the strategy is working. If the poll reveals a tangible increase in support for the Tories inside the Perimeter, expect the strategy and spending to continue. If it grows to anywhere near 35 per cent, start preparing for an early election call.

If, however, the numbers don’t improve for the Tories inside Winnipeg, it will represent the latest – and perhaps irreversible – signal the government’s re-election hopes are dashed and we should start getting used to the words “Premier Wab Kinew.”

The stakes are high for the government, for Stefanson and for our province. All will be revealed in the next few days.

deverynrossletters@gmail.com

Twitter: @deverynross

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