There’s a reason the provincial Progressive Conservatives continue to command a sizable lead in the most recent public opinion poll: Manitobans, on balance, appear relatively satisfied with the work the party has done over the past three years.
If they weren’t — if health care really were in "chaos" and "cuts" to front-line services were indeed putting Manitobans at risk (as opposition parties and public-sector unions allege) — the Tories would have been falling in the polls some time ago.
The recent Probe Research poll, commissioned by the Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg, shows the PC party with 40 per cent support among decided voters — well ahead of the NDP at 29 per cent, and the Liberals at 18.
The numbers haven’t changed much over the past 18 months.
In March 2018, Probe had the Tories at 44 per cent, the NDP at 28 and the Liberals at 19. The only time the Tories dipped below 40 per cent since winning government in 2016 was in September 2017 — a few months after the Pallister government announced its controversial health-care reforms — when support fell briefly to 36 per cent.
The favourable polling numbers shouldn’t come as a great surprise.
First-term governments, unless they’re mired in scandal or make rash and reckless decisions, almost always win a second mandate. They tend to get the benefit of the doubt from voters when making changes to public services (such as health care) as long as there’s some level of objectivity. If they make headway on even a portion of their previous campaign commitments — without alienating the public in a significant way — they usually get the green light for a second term.
It’s a pretty low bar. First-term governments have to mess up in a big way to get kicked out of office. It’s only happened once in recent decades in Manitoba: when Tory premier Sterling Lyon was defeated in 1981 after four years in government.
Political parties don’t really win government, as much as incumbents eventually lose. When the public gets fed up enough with a sitting administration, they toss it out. Whoever is there to take over becomes the beneficiary. That’s what happened in 2016.
But there has to be a time-for-a-change dynamic for that to occur. No such dynamic exists in Manitoba right now.
For the most part, Manitobans are getting what they voted for in the Tories, a party that vowed to balance the books and reduce taxes. It is well on its way to a balanced budget and reduced the provincial sales tax to seven per cent, as promised.
The Tories had no mandate to reform health care, at least not the way they’re doing so right now. However, there seems to be some acceptance among the public that change was needed. The jury is still out on whether the hospital consolidation plan is the right one — and they’ll be judged, at some point, on the results.
In the meantime, what the polls show is the public is largely in favour of government’s balanced-budget agenda. If it wasn’t, if voters believed the policy decisions were as reckless and disastrous as opponents have made them out to be, the Tories would be falling in the polls. But they aren’t.
Even the NDP has adopted a balanced budget policy in this election, vowing to eliminate the deficit in four years, if elected.
That shouldn’t come as a great shock. The alternative to not getting the deficit under control and allowing the provincial debt to grow at unsustainable levels would have been disastrous. It would have led to further credit-rating downgrades, soaring debt servicing costs and eventually higher taxes, or deep cost cutting (the severity of which would make today’s cost controls look modest).
Government can’t do much to improve health care and education, fund infrastructure and help people get out of poverty if it is on a path to financial ruin (as it was under the previous NDP administration). It has to get its own fiscal house in order before it can pursue those policy objectives with the attention they deserve.
There seems to be some public recognition of that. And it’s reflected in the latest poll.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.