Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/2/2019 (203 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Will he or won’t he?
Politicos of all shapes, stripes and dispositions are still debating Premier Brian Pallister’s coy suggestion last December that he might call an early provincial election.
Pallister’s tease is not, in and of itself, that surprising. He is a politician who has shown over and over again an appetite for surprising turns of events. In other words, an early election is certainly well within his general approach to governing.
Manitoba’s fixed-date election law — an unfortunately inaccurate use of language — does not actually stipulate a specific date on which a vote must be held. It does require Pallister to hold the next election no later than October 2020. However, the term "no later than" is the critical element. It means that under the existing law, Pallister can drop the writ on an election almost anytime before the fall of next year.
But would he? Few outside observers believe Pallister would gain much by going sooner. The provincial budget is still in deficit, a controversial reorganization of Winnipeg hospital resources is still unfolding and the premier does not have the fiscal wiggle room yet to deliver on his principal 2016 election pledge — cutting the provincial sales tax by one percentage point.
And yet, it’s hard to deny that the whole idea of quietly prepping the Tory troops and then forcing the NDP and Liberal party into an election before they are ready must be pretty tempting. Particularly now, when electoral boundary redistribution is taking valuable planning time away from normal electoral readiness efforts.
The Electoral Boundaries Commission last year announced significant changes to the province’s constituencies as they were configured for the 2016 election. All but one constituency saw their boundaries change, and 14 got new names. Perhaps the most significant change is that, in order to account for population growth, Winnipeg gets an additional seat and now boasts 32 of the 57 ridings that make up the province’s electoral map.
The new boundaries have created a formidable challenge for the parties. They must disband all the existing electoral district executives, and then re-form them around the new boundaries. Retained moneys in the old ridings must be distributed fairly among new ones. Riding executive members will be scattered to the winds.
Election readiness — raising money, recruiting candidates, plotting provincial and riding-specific strategy — can be an enormous challenge in a normal election cycle. Add in boundary redistribution and — possibly — an early election call, and you have a scenario that might bury some opposition parties. A quick survey of the three main parties shows that not all of them are keeping up with the perfect storm of challenges that now awaits them.
It will come as no surprise that Manitoba Tories are doing everything they can to be ready well before the other two parties. PC party officials confirmed that they have already held founding meetings in 14 of the newly configured ridings. Perhaps more importantly, in each of these ridings — all currently held by Tory MLAs who are running for re-election — candidate selection was also completed.
The fully reconstituted ridings with nominated candidates include: Kildonan-River East (Cathy Cox), Steinbach (Kelvin Goertzen), Agassiz (Eileen Clarke), Riding Mountain (Greg Nesbitt), Turtle Mountain (Doyle Piwniuk), Brandon West (Reg Helwer), Portage la Prairie (Ian Wishart), Lakeside (Ralph Eichler), Interlake-Gimli (Derek Johnson), Tuxedo (Heather Stefanson), Spruce Woods (Cliff Cullen), Morden-Winkler (Cameron Friesen), Midland (Blaine Pedersen) and Rossmere (Andrew Micklefield).
Other founding meetings, or combinations of founding and candidate-selection meetings, are scheduled throughout February and March. Party officials said their plan was to have all of the new electoral districts fully reconstituted and ready to go by the end of March. There will still be candidate recruiting and nominating to be done, but if the Tories automatically re-nominate all existing MLAs, they will have very few new candidates to identify.
The NDP is also extremely active in holding its founding meetings for the new electoral districts. In the next six weeks, the NDP has about 35 meetings scheduled, some of which will involve more than one constituency. A spokesman from NDP Leader Wab Kinew’s office said the party’s goal is to have all of its new constituency associations properly formed and operational by the end of March.
However, the NDP will be lagging behind the Tories on nominations. The spokesman said the NDP is not combining founding meetings with candidate nominations. Each new constituency will still have to set a schedule for nominations and dates for candidate selection starting in the spring.
Bringing up the rear is the Manitoba Liberal Party. With only four MLAs, the Grits have far less existing constituency architecture to dismantle, but also fewer resources to help in the formation of 57 new constituency associations. The size of their caucus means less concern about automatically nominating existing MLAs.
However, due to an unexpected illness, the party’s point person on boundary reconstitution has been unable to work. This has led to the postponement of founding meetings scheduled for January. A party spokesman said the party is still endeavouring to complete all the founding meetings by the end of March.
If Pallister is aware of the status of the other two opposition parties — and for the sake of argument, let’s say that he is — then it may appear to be extremely appealing to consider the mayhem that would ensue if an election were called this spring, just after he tables the 2019-20 budget in the first week of March.
The Tories appear to be on track to present some fairly flattering budget numbers in the upcoming budget plan, with a smaller deficit and a date in the not-too-distant future when the province will be back in surplus. That is not as politically potent as actually recording a surplus, but provincial governments have many times contested and won elections on little more than a firm forecast for a balanced budget.
There will be other concerns to take into account before any snap election is called. The provincial and national economies are expected to slow considerably this year, putting pressure on government revenues and perhaps dampening enthusiasm for a date with voters.
As well, there will most definitely be a federal election held sometime this year, but no later than fall. Uncertainty about a possible early writ from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may discourage Pallister from playing election chicken with the federal Liberals. Overlapping provincial and federal campaigns make it tough for all combatants, including incumbent governments.
It would seem the Manitoba premier does not have a realistic opportunity for an early election call until perhaps the spring of 2020, which would only be a handful of months earlier than the law requires him to drop a writ. But at that point, one has to wonder what motivation he would have to call an election; another year of election planning would erase much of the advantage the Tories enjoy now in election readiness.
So, an early election still seems to be a long shot. But that isn’t stopping Pallister and the PCs from making sure they are ready to go sooner, rather than later. And that should still be cause for concern for opposition parties.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.