The results of the 2019 provincial election tell us two things: Manitobans want a government that lives within its means, and they’re willing to give the Progressive Conservatives time to reform health care.
The PC party was re-elected with a strong majority Tuesday, winning in 36 of 57 constituencies. It’s down from the modern-day record of 40 seats the Tories won in 2016. It’s still one of the largest majority governments in recent decades. There was no expectation, not even among the most optimistic Tories, that they would keep all 40 seats.
This was an impressive victory, considering what the Pallister government was up against in its first term in office.
Tackling a $932-million deficit and trying to stabilize the province’s credit rating after three costly downgrades is not always an easy sell to voters. There is pain and sacrifice involved. Mistakes get made when deciding where to reduce spending. And there is always a debate about the appropriate timeline to balance the books.
Fortunately for the Tories, there has been growing public awareness that chronic deficit financing is not sustainable. Structural deficits and ballooning debt eventually harm the very front-line services the public relies on.
Apparently, Manitobans get that. They had choices in this election to return to the days of deficit financing and they turned them down.
They also had the option of electing a government that would halt the Tories’ health-care reforms, including the consolidation of acute-care hospitals in Winnipeg. They rejected that, too. After two decades of dumping record amounts of tax dollars into health care and getting poor results, it appears Manitobans are willing to give the government a chance to reform the system.
That’s been an even tougher sell than the need to balance the books because it’s not clear the reform plan is the right one. The plan makes sense on paper, but the execution of it has been disastrous in many areas.
The temptation may have been to abandon those reforms and go back to the previous system. There were options in this election to do so. But Manitobans opposed them.
The temptation may have been to abandon those reforms and go back to the previous system. There were options in this election to do so. But Manitobans opposed them. They didn’t buy the line from opposition parties and unions that the government’s objective was to gut health care. They weren’t taken in by the scare tactics.
But the public’s patience on health care won’t last forever.
There’s a finish line when it comes to eliminating the deficit. The books are now expected to be in the black by 2022. That will give the government more flexibility to fund front-line services and infrastructure, pay down debt and realign the tax system. Many benefits will flow from having a balanced budget.
But there is no obvious turning point in health care. If the reforms work, there would be gradual improvements in wait times, emergency room congestion, access to personal-care homes, etc. If they don’t work, the public will see continued disruption in the system. The Tories would have to answer for that in the next election.
In many ways, some of the toughest years of governing are ahead for the Tories. That’s when the public is going to expect results not only in health care, but also from reforms in the public school system, child care, justice and child welfare.
Manitoba voters approved of the Pallister government’s blueprint for change. The next election will be fought on the results of those changes.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.