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COVID-19, Pallister, likely to dog Conservative party members looking to replace premier, experts say

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COVID-19, Pallister, likely to dog Conservative party members looking to replace premier, experts say
The race is on to replace Premier Brian Pallister, and the first contender is a member of the provincial Progressive Conservative party. But, experts say former Health Minister Heather Stefanson — or any PC party member — may be facing an uphill battle given Pallister’s waning popularity. Will Reimer reports – Aug 19, 2021

The race is on to replace Premier Brian Pallister, and the first contender is a member of the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

But, experts say former Health Minister Heather Stefanson — or any PC party member — may be facing an uphill battle given Pallister’s waning popularity.

“I don’t think it’s a party issue, I really think it’s a premier issue,” says Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University.

“He has run into previous scandals over the amount of time for example he’s spent in Costa Rica. There’s enough time between (now and) an election that the party hopes the removal of a leader will give time for a good leadership race, and then time for that new leader to put their stamp on the party.”

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Bratt thinks a party member will still stand a reasonable chance of winning the next provincial election if there’s enough time for that person to step out of Pallister’s shadow and develop their brand.

However, it also depends on the province’s COVID-19 situation, which will be seen as a reflection of the government’s performance.

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“While Pallister had some issues, it was the COVID response that really solidified things,” Bratt says.

“So as the vaccination rates increase, as the death numbers drop, as we start to get out of COVID, that and a fresh face may be enough.”

While a new face and improvements on the COVID-19 front will help, Bratt adds nothing is a guarantee.

Christopher Adams, a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, agrees the pandemic will be top of mind for Manitobans heading to the polls, and the issues surrounding the health care sector are likely to badger Stefanson as well.

“Part of Pallister’s problems are linked to how the health sector was governed over the past 18 months, and part of that was under Heather Stefanson’s watch,” Adams says.

“So she’s got some work to do to separate herself from some issues such as having to fly people out of the province for emergency care, staffing in emergency wards, dealing with nurses who are on the brink of a possible strike, things like that.

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“There are problems in the healthcare sector and she was the minister of health, so I think she’s got to do a little bit more distancing, but I’m not sure she’s able to do that.”

That said, Stefanson and others will likely be able to breathe fresh life into the PC party and separate themselves from some of the issues that dragged down Pallister’s popularity, such as his comments on Indigenous relations.

“Part of the … challenge for the PCs has been to win over women voters, and I know from looking at polling data I’ve looked at over the past 20 years is the PCs get stronger support from men compared to women,” Adams says.

“Brian Pallister in 2016 and in 2019 wasn’t effective in bringing over women voters in the suburban parts of the city of Winnipeg, and that has now evaporated … so the PCs having a women leader, I think that’s a strong step for the party to try to win back some of that swing women voters in Winnipeg.”

Either way, Bratt expects the next election will be a “competitive” one, with the NDP making gains in the capital.

For the Tories, he says it will depend largely on how much time the new leader has to put their own unique stamp on the party before the next election.

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