To anyone who has been paying attention since, oh, nearly the beginning of the year, the fact that Premier Brian Pallister finally pulled the trigger to ask the lieutenant-governor to dissolve the Manitoba legislature and set Sept. 10 as the next provincial election day would have come as no surprise.
The Progressive Conservative party leader has been dropping hints that he would do so for several months, and at least one political scientist correctly predicted the date on which he would choose to have the election.
Pallister has faced criticism for his decision, mostly because he has chosen to ignore Manitoba’s fixed election date legislation, which called for the next election to come Oct. 6, 2020, and send Manitobans back to the polls a little more than three years after his party took over following 17 years of uninterrupted NDP rule. But under Canada’s parliamentary system, fixed election date legislation is essentially symbolic anyways, since the premier or prime minister can ask the lieutenant-governor or Governor General, respectively, to dissolve the legislature or House of Commons at any time they wish and, since the Queen’s representatives/heads of state are merely figureheads for the most part, they won’t refuse such a request, unless perhaps they want to trigger every Canadian’s favourite type of political scandal: a constitutional crisis.
That Pallister, as premier, had the right and ability to trigger an early election is evidenced by the fact that we are going to have an early election, fixed election date legislation be damned. So it’s time to drop the parliamentary procedure parlour game of should he have or shouldn’t he and focus on what really matters: is he going to rue his decision?
Since winning 40 out of 57 seats in Manitoba’s 2016 general election, Pallister’s PC government has reduced the provincial deficit, reduced the provincial sales tax from eight per cent back down to seven per cent (the change takes effect July 1) and fought a long public battle with the federal government over the issue of a carbon tax. Many consultations have been launched and reports written, but will all of it prove to be enough when Manitobans go to the polls in September?
A Probe Research poll conducted in March found that the decision to reduce the PST didn’t result in more support for the PC party, which led provincewide with the support of 40 per cent of decided and leaning voters compared to 30 per cent for the NDP and 18 per cent for the Manitoba Liberals. However, in seat-rich Winnipeg, the NDP had 36 per cent of decided and leaning voters’ support, compared to 32 per cent for the PCs and 23 per cent for the Liberals.
Still, the PCs lead with 51 per cent of the support of decided and leaning male voters, 58 per cent of rural and northern voters collectively and 54 per cent of voters with high school education or less. NDP support is higher among women, post secondary graduates and Indigenous voters.
Since being elected in 2016, the PCs support has dropped about 10 percentage points, while support for the NDP and Liberals has risen about four percentage points for each. Whether that will translate into an election loss, a smaller majority or a PC minority government depends quite a bit on the distribution of rural and urban votes, as strong support in one particular electoral district may affect opinion poll results more than actual election results come September. But Thompson PC MLA Kelly Bindle will almost certainly have a tougher road to re-election than he did to beating Steve Ashton three years ago, since he is not running against an incumbent who is part of a government that held power for a long time, but part of government himself, and it’s a government that has made some unpopular decisions, particularly in regards to health care. On top of that, the Thompson electoral district has been expanded to include Nelson House, Gillam and Churchill, while the bulk of his support the last time around came from within Thompson and areas close by like Paint Lake and Setting Lake. Bindle is running against a political newcomer in the form of NDP candidate Danielle Adams, but he knows well from experience that being new to the game doesn’t mean you won’t win.
It will be interesting to see how the PCs fare in this opportunistic election. If they win a majority, even with fewer seats than in 2016, Pallister will probably be praised for shrewdly heading to the polls before his government did anything to further reduce its popularity. A minority win would be less of a clear-cut victory. Sure they would remain in power, but would be dependent on one the support of one of the other parties to enact legislation and stay there. If it turns out he misjudged the mood of the electorate and dropping support in Winnipeg in the face of feuds with the mayor and health-care policy changes going less than smoothly, he would be the first one-term premier in Manitoba since former PC premier Sterling Lyon, though his predecessor Greg Selinger only won an election once, having been appointed to replace outgoing premier Gary Doer after winning the NDP’s party leadership in 2009.
Unlike most years, when summer is the slow and silly season for politics, this year in Manitoba the stakes will be considerably higher.