Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 2, 2016
If the election were held today, Manitobans would elect a Progressive Conservative majority government.
The last time the governing NDP, a party known for the “Manitoba miracle,” was truly challenged, United States President Bill Clinton was freshly cleared on impeachment charges, “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” was dominating the box office and Facebook was still almost five years off from joining the lexicon of everyday life. Puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?
Since 1999, the New Democrats have taken a stranglehold on provincial politics as each of their four majority governments saw a steady increase to their highest total ever in 2011. The winds of change appear to be blowing though, and the strong urban Winnipeg support that buoyed their fortunes for so long has all but eroded.
A Probe research poll conducted earlier this month shows the Brian Pallister Progressive Conservatives holding steady at 43 per cent support, while the upstart Manitoba Liberals have soared to 29 per cent. Rounding out the numbers, the NDP trail in third at 22 per cent, outside the margin of error in terms of the gap to Liberal support.
As polls go, the Progressive Conservatives have lived in the low 40s range for the better part of the last year, thanks in part to the bumbled handling of the PST increase, as well as the very public coup attempt made by five of Premier Greg Selinger’s closest cabinet ministers.
As for the Liberals, this is the modern-day equivalent of uncharted waters. Under former leader Jon Gerrard, they never returned to the Sharon Carstairs glory days of the 1980s and for much of the 2000s barely regained provincial relevance.
The idea that they were unable to overcome those obstacles is truly unfortunate as during that time their leader was probably one of the most genuine and smart politicians the legislature had the pleasure to house, and under another banner would have made an exceptional premier. Gerrard continues to be a gifted and bright advocate, and a strong policy craftsman, but his Achilles heel is and always was the fact he is far from a “retail politician.”
With Rana Bokhari, the Liberals are relevant again. As a leader, Bokhari shares many similarities her federal counterpart, Justin Trudeau, used to rise to power. She has been somewhat of a maverick in assuming the party by casting off some of the long held Liberal values, old-fashioned ideals and outdated party brass to create a hybrid with more wide-ranging appeal to Manitobans.
Without a doubt, this is part of the formula Trudeau used to bring the federal party to the forefront again. Trudeau spent plenty of time speaking to the grassroots — something Bokhari has built on since taking over the provincial Liberal leadership.
With that said, Bokhari will need to dive into some more serious issues in short order to keep the fire stoked; issues like a health-care plan or infrastructure development in the next decade would solidify her position as the person with the chops to lead, or in this case be the balance of power should the Liberals be wildly successful on election day. Avoiding more of the “boutique issues” like liquor sales and upper-echelon taxation plans would be a good start.
As we round the corner into a new year, the focus now shifts to what the perceived front-runner can do to push his party’s fortunes over the top.
Polling numbers reflect the fact that Progressive Conservatives have remained stagnant over the last year, as has their messaging. There is little to be excited about in what the Tories are talking right now. And having Pallister flirt with cutting one-third of the provincial cabinet as well as a large handful of civil servant and communications staff will put few at ease as to what else may fall to the proverbial “scissors” the NDP so often speak of.
As well, the PC party will gain little ground as a result of their leader, and much like their New Democrat counterparts may end up being hampered come election day by him, making Bokhari’s approach to the election somewhat refreshing.
What happens too if, dare we say, the Liberals cut into PC support in rural Manitoba? Constituencies like Brandon East that have long been painted orange are now significantly in play, which spells trouble should the Liberals steal a seat or two outside the perimeter.
If the election were over today and the polling held true, Brian Pallister would end up being premier. But the premier would not be the one responsible for writing the headlines. That distinction would clearly be Bokhari’s right to stake a claim to.