Manitobans faced a choice in this election campaign between the NDP premier who loathsomely broke a promise on tax hikes, a neophyte Liberal leader who spent weeks giving voters new reasons to dislike her, and a Progressive Conservative of whom about half the province has remained leery, and makes no bones about the fact he’s not too likeable.
Mr. Leery (Brian Pallister) lost the unpopularity contest on Tuesday night, and will become the province’s 22nd premier with a strong majority government. Thus ends the tenure of the last Canadian regime that’s been in power since the 1990s.
As with the born-in-1970s dynasty that fell in Alberta last spring, Greg Selinger’s government collapsed under its own clunking weight. Tombstone manufacturers had begun their chiseling in 2013 when Selinger hiked the PST to eight per cent—precisely what he told voters he wouldn’t do, two years earlier. A clutch of cabinet ministers publicly revolted in 2014, but Selinger stubbornly clung to power in a subsequent leadership race. Many key NDP allies didn’t run again, and internal party chatter this campaign has been about how many traditionally safe seats the party can salvage, and what renewal might look like in the post-Selinger era. (In his concession speech Selinger finally announced he would relinquish his beat-up party crown.)
The spoils went Tuesday to the Tories and Pallister, a former backbencher under Stephen Harper and a minister in the Manitoba PCs’ last government two decades ago. The new premier comes in boasting approval of 45 per cent of Manitobans according to an Insights West poll, and 41-per-cent disapproval. That middling score amounts to a love-in compared with people’s impressions of Selinger (25-62 approval/disapproval) and Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari (20-58), who opened the election hoping to surge but ran a Producers-esque disaster of a campaign with peculiar statements, dicey ideas, poor organization and a dismal TV debate performance. As much as Selinger deserved his defeat, Bokhari worked hard to earn third place. Liberals only won three seats (none of them hers—she lost to broadcaster Wab Kinew, a star NDP candidate even in the party’s bleak night).
Pallister’s win by attrition is a break from elections’ recent past. By the time Canadians voted last October, they were generally favourable to both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, and the leader with the edge led his party to victory. Ontarians were lukewarm on all their choices in the 2014 election, but stuck with an unpopular Kathleen Wynne because the Tory turned out to be more unappealing.
Last year’s crop of new leaders—Trudeau, Alberta’s Rachel Notley and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Dwight Ball—all rode in on waves of public enthusiasm. (And hullo, Brad Wall.) Perhaps this is a decent preview of what’s to come south of the border, in Clinton-Cruz or Clinton-Trump match-ups that are hard to get excited about.
“It reminds me of the first Stephen Harper election in 2006,” says Mario Canseco, vice-president of Insights West. “It was not a ‘love-in’ for the new party and its leader — more like a ‘hate-out’ for the Liberals at the time.”
If a leader doesn’t earn love in a victorious election, she or he must work to gain or maintain respect in government. Pallister is rather self-aware of this likeability liability, amid constant references and jokes about his 6’8” height.
“I know that that’s the modern poli-sci concept — you’ve got to be a likeable guy and stuff. Likeability doesn’t enter into my concept of what’s the most important thing,” he told Winnipeg Free Press’ Bartley Kives. “I don’t make a great effort — I know I don’t — to be a likeable person. “I didn’t get into this business because I needed adulation, I guess is what I’m saying. I got into this business because I thought maybe I could help, and I’ll build a team to help.”
Entering office with a low approval rating may not bode well for a prolonged honeymoon for Pallister. He didn’t have to promise the moon to win — he didn’t even set a timeline for balanced budget, waiting to see how the NDP left the provincial books. But he has promised to undo Selinger’s cardinal sin at some point this term, and that he can lower the PST by cutting government “waste” and not affecting public services. Selinger tried to save the core NDP votes by depicting Pallister as a pro-privatization slasher, going as far as holding a final-weekend event at the home of a brain cancer patient and suggesting Pallister might make Manitobans pay for brain cancer drugs. Tories called that a shameful low; every news outlet that reported the event focused on how tawdry the antic was.
Another NDP-aided slug will also help make Manitobans reluctant to get the warm fuzzies for their new premier. Some Panama Papers-inspired thread-pulling they did led to the revelation Pallister as opposition leader spent about two months per year at his Costa Rica vacation home, and had to admit he was there instead of here at the height of the 2014 flood. The New Democrats had already been sliming Pallister as an exorbitantly wealthy and detached figure, and the PC leader’s bid to maintain a quiet frontrunner campaign helped make the Costa Rica episode one of the election’s most memorable issues.
If likeability is a longshot, the premier-elect’s path to respectability will be in proving the NDP cynicism false. Pallister sold himself as a Brad Wall-style centrist who will bring Manitoba into the other western provinces’ trade zone, and boost the province’s sagging health care system, economic prospects and child protection system.
If a majority of Manitobans don’t love their new premier, they are putting plenty of faith in their new governing party. The Tories had more than 52 per cent of the vote in early returns, and led in 40 of 57 seats — bringing into cabinet several new faces for Manitobans to grow comfortable with. The NDP were ahead in 14 seats, their worst finish since 1988, reducing their caucus to some parts of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s north. Provincial voters may not be thrilled that Pallister is in, but they sure appear happy that somebody finally sent Greg Selinger packing.