Brian Pallister knows his party has had a problem with women.

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This article was published 19/3/2016 (2136 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Brian Pallister knows his party has had a problem with women.

Based on past elections, the leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives admits his party hasn’t done well with female voters.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Activist Diane Redsky says indigenous women are concerned about food security, housing and child welfare.</p></p>

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files

Activist Diane Redsky says indigenous women are concerned about food security, housing and child welfare.

The NDP tried to exploit that several weeks ago in attacks ads that inferred Pallister has called women "whiney and feeble-minded."

While the ad was mocked, Pallister said he has to do more to ensure his party builds a strong relationship with all Manitobans.

"It is very significant. Women will decide who wins this election," he said.

A recent poll suggests the Tories may not have as much to worry about in this campaign.

According to a Forum Research poll, the PCs have 43 per cent support among female voters, the NDP 23 per cent and the Liberals 25 per cent. That’s in stark contrast to 2011. A Probe Research poll during the height of that campaign pegged NDP support among women at 51 per cent, the Hugh McFadyen-led Tories at 38 per cent and the Liberals at seven per cent.

Chris Adams, a political analyst who has studied the voting patterns of women, said this election is different.

In 2011, the Tories needed to court female voters. Advertisements depicted then-leader McFadyen as a family man, and women were prominent in commercials. The party’s target was south Winnipeg and the ridings the NDP had captured under former premier Gary Doer.

Adams said Pallister doesn’t have to try to "out-Doer" the NDP this campaign.

"Hugh McFadyen was trying to win back south Winnipeg and the women voters, Brian Pallister is doing something similar, he is trying to soften his image, but he isn’t trying to put forth the same policies as the NDP," Adams said. "The road to power for Pallister doesn’t necessarily rely on south Winnipeg."

The Free Press spoke with Pallister, NDP Leader Greg Selinger and Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari about how they plan to woo women this election. In the 2011 election, more than 54 per cent of votes cast were from women. The Free Press also spoke to several interest groups to ask what issues they want to see highlighted in the election campaign.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Alberta Johnson, president of the Provincial Council of Women of Manitoba, says her group tries to influence politicians to make decisions that improve women’s lives. Affordable housing is a key concern.</p></p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alberta Johnson, president of the Provincial Council of Women of Manitoba, says her group tries to influence politicians to make decisions that improve women’s lives. Affordable housing is a key concern.

What issues are important to women?

When it comes to political issues, research shows men and women are distinctly different. While men tend to focus on fiscal issues, women are more interested in social and community issues, said Kelly Saunders, a political science professor at Brandon University.

"Opinion polls do show when they interview women, what are the issues that matter to them, it tends to be the kinds of issues that women highlight more than men: social policy issues such as education, health care. It tends to be issues related to child care, and that just makes sense," Saunders said. "Women, even working mothers, still tend to be the primary caregivers."

The Provincial Council of Women of Manitoba, a volunteer organization that serves women’s organizations, recently sent out a survey to determine key issues to women. Members were asked to rank the importance of issues such as housing, transportation and food security.

"For the next six weeks leading up to the election, what do you want us to be talking about? What sort of issues do you want on the table and getting some attention that way?" council president Alberta Johnson said of the survey.

Johnson said the council, which is non-partisan, has a mandate to improve social conditions by influencing political decision-making and public attitudes. In the organization’s 65 years of existence, a frequent issue that comes up is affordable housing, particularly among older women, those with mental disabilities and low-income earners.

Issues important to indigenous women also must be recognized, said Diane Redsky, the executive director at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, a resource centre that supports aboriginal families. Those issues include food security in the north, Child and Family Services and housing.

"What I am looking for in this election is strategies (that target) root causes which affect the vulnerability of indigenous women in our province," Redsky said.

For example, her organization wants to know how the parties would attempt to reduce the number of indigenous kids in care. One approach she would like to see gain more support is family group conferencing, which takes the decision away from the system and gives it to the entire family. The use of conferencing last year saved the province $1.1 million after 49 children did not need to be placed back into the care of the child welfare system.

"This affects indigenous women mostly, because there are a lot of indigenous women raising their children as single parents," Redsky said.

"The indigenous women vote matters… and indigenous women have all different kinds of challenges. The more you live in poverty the harder it is for you as an indigenous woman."

How the parties reach out to women

The Liberals, who have just one seat in the legislature, are trying to increase their seat count. In order to do that, they must entice the vote-rich female electorate away from the NDP, Saunders said.

"It means they are going to have to specifically target their policy to that captive audience," Saunders said. "It would be foolish for any party to ignore over half the voters."

Pallister’s objective is to fight off attacks his party doesn’t care about issues most important to women. A recent NDP ad campaign tried to expose this perceived weakness. The ad featured a pretend text-message exchange inferring Pallister called them "whiney and feeble-minded." The ad was criticized.

Pallister said his party’s ability to think about the big picture should appeal to women.

He said voters should look to the PC plan to raise the basic personal tax exemption, for example.

He promised his party would manage the economy better than the NDP, and said any voter, regardless of gender, should want that from their government.

"I need to build a relationship. My party needs to build a relationship with more Manitobans… because the PCs haven’t done as well with women voters," Pallister said.

Bokhari is the only female party leader. She hopes to steal women’s votes away from the NDP, but she admitted she hasn’t decided how she will do that. "In my brain, I haven’t strategically looked and said, ‘This is how I am going to get women,’ (because) I am a woman," she said.

The Liberals hope announcements they have already made will appeal to women, including eliminating the PST on haircuts and on children’s sporting goods and covering the full cost of an initial round of in vitro fertilization for couples wanting a child.

Pallister said such policies are short-sighted and fail to look at the big picture of what affects women: the fiscal stability of the province.

"Is it going to change the entire system? No," Bokhari countered. "Is it going to put another $200 in their pockets? Yes. Does it help those people? Ask them, yes, it helps."

Selinger said the NDP’s record on issues important to women — such as health care, daycare, housing and education — speaks for itself. He has promised to create 12,000 new daycare spaces during the next seven years, and last week his party pledged to improve measures to promote pay equity for women.

"It comes down to what are the choices for Manitoba families, and these are the things they’ve told us are important, and we are running on that," Selinger said.

"Women should vote for the best policies for them, their families and their future. We’ve listened to them and put those policies on the table in this election."

kristin.annable@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @kristinannable