IN a recent interview, Premier Brian Pallister revealed that he intends to stick around as premier at least until the COVID-19 pandemic abates, but stopped short of committing to serve out the entirety of his current second term.
This raises the possibility that the premier will begin preparing to depart once public vaccinations for COVID-19 are completed, likely in the fall of 2021. Pallister will likely hit the road with more than enough time left for both a full Progressive Conservative leadership race and for his successor to establish him- or herself in the role before having to face off against (presumably) Wab Kinew’s NDP in the next provincial election.
The premier’s resignation musings are likely to set off intense behind-the-scenes activity as leadership hopefuls sound out their chances with potential supporters. There has been such talk for some time, but prospective candidates — especially members of the current PC government — have been careful not to organize too brazenly lest they attract the premier’s wrath. But Pallister’s more recent comments are likely to be seen as a green light for more such campaigning.
Pallister’s revelation might also be designed to head off grumbling over his leadership in the face of sagging support. Pallister is now trailing Kinew and the NDP in provincial polls, particularly in Winnipeg. The PCs are suddenly in rough shape in precisely the suburban Winnipeg seats needed to win elections in this province.
Pallister’s comments will likely head off the kind of backbiting and even rebellion we saw against former premier Greg Selinger in the NDP’s dying days in government. Why try to force the premier out the door when he will shortly be showing himself out anyway?
A fresh face at the helm may be just what is needed for the PCs. The government’s response to the pandemic has undoubtedly dented its popularity. Whereas Health Minister Cameron Friesen was previously the government’s point man on COVID-19, the premier has almost entirely supplanted Friesen in this respect. For better or worse, Pallister is the face of the government’s COVID-19 response.
This aligns with conventional wisdom about replacing party leaders: typically, a fresh face is expected to give parties an electoral boost. Since Canadian parties at both the federal and provincial levels are so leader-centred, a new leader can both redefine and revitalize a party. It is therefore to be expected that a new leader will attract attention and pay dividends at the ballot box. This could be what Pallister has in mind by publicly musing about his retirement.
But is this conventional wisdom true?
Practitioners of politics make fun of political scientists for being disconnected eggheads. However, we sometimes earn our pay by putting conventional wisdom accepted by practitioners to the test.
Some time ago, political scientists David Stewart and Ken Carty explored this question of replacing the leader by looking at provincial party leadership races in Canada. Their answer to the question of whether changing the party leader provides an electoral boost was a flat "no." "Leadership changes… do not provide a guarantee of future electoral success, nor are they a panacea for an unpopular government party," Stewart and Carty concluded, contradicting the conventional wisdom.
A much more recent analysis by political scientists Helene Helboe Pedersen and Gijs Schumacher explores this same question but in a wider perspective: they examined the consequences of leadership changes in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. Pedersen and Schumacher found that parties do get a boost in popularity when more open, democratic leadership selection methods are used.
But by and large, they get the same results as Carty and Stewart: any uptick in popularity following the selection of a new leader fizzles by the time the next election arrives. "Parties that change leader(ship) do not do better at the next election," they flatly concluded.
These studies throw cold water on the prospect that replacing Pallister will bolster the PC party in the next provincial election. But they also provide some clues to how the PCs could help themselves in organizing and conducting the coming leadership race. First, a competitive, exciting leadership race is more likely to help parties than a boring acclamation. And, second, a leadership race that allows more, rather than fewer, people a direct say in who will lead is also positive.
But neither of these considerations alters the conclusion that changes in leadership provide little in the way of electoral dividends in future provincial elections. Manitoba’s PCs should not count on a leadership race held sometime in the next couple years to extricate them from the flagging-popularity pickle in which they currently find themselves.
Royce Koop is head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.