Manitobans will find out today who will be their first female premier as Progressive Conservatives unveil their choice between the favourite of the establishment and the outsider promising to shake up the status quo.
But the historic occasion — the selection of Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover to Manitoba’s highest office — could be marred because some party members didn’t have a chance to cast their ballots. At least 1,200 people did not receive their mail-in ballots days before the vote, prompting Glover to ask the party to delay the vote count.
“We would hope that the results have the highest level of confidence in their integrity and that everyone who signed up to be eligible to vote gets a chance to cast a ballot,” veteran political expert Paul Thomas said.
“For that reason,” he said, “flaws in the procedure are disappointing.”
Those issues, however, are not stopping the Progressive Conservatives from making their leadership announcement Saturday afternoon at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg. The results will be livestreamed in this story and CBC Gem at 4:30 p.m. CT, or earlier if the vote counting finishes quicker than planned.
Pallister’s resignation set off race
It is rare in Manitoba’s history for political party members to select their next leader and, by extension, the premier at the same time. The race was triggered after former premier Brian Pallister, whose popularity was sinking, resigned two months before the Tories would select his successor. Cabinet minister Kelvin Goertzen took over the job in the interim.
The winner between Stefanson and Glover will be sworn in as premier at a later date.
Stefanson, a longtime MLA in the posh Winnipeg constituency of Tuxedo, has been the overwhelming choice of Tory opinion-leaders, with nearly every member of the party caucus — who aren’t required to remain neutral — backing her. She’s also curried the favour of Conservative MPs, government staffers, party elites and business leaders.
“I think Heather Stefanson is definitely the odds-on choice,” said Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
But she carries baggage from being a stalwart supporter of Pallister’s government, which became unpopular in his waning months in office. She has promised a more conciliatory leadership approach, but her words may fall short, Thomas said.
“People who were fed up and frustrated with Pallister, angry even toward him … may say, ‘She should have spoken up,'” Thomas said.
Political opponents have wasted no time tying Stefanson to what they perceive are the party’s past mistakes. Stefanson was health minister during the pandemic’s disastrous third wave when Manitoba had to send patients out of province.
Glover, a former Conservative MP and Winnipeg police officer, has been the underdog candidate from the beginning, but Thomas says she’s cherished her outsider status. She’s argued the party has lost touch with Manitobans, and must change its approach or Manitobans will change the government.
“She’s a feisty person. She’s a fighter. Her politics is learned on the street,” said Thomas, describing the leadership bid of the former cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government as a “counterweight to all the pressure to anoint Heather Stefanson.”
Glover, though, had to cast a broad net of support to reel in supporters beyond the party establishment. She’s been accused of courting opponents of pandemic restrictions. She’s criticized mandatory vaccination or testing for some frontline workers, and slammed so-called “economic lockdowns” that hurt businesses.
“She had to be coy about her own views and avoid denouncing people who had more extreme views within the party,” Thomas said.
“She just couldn’t surrender any ground because she was entering the race behind.”
The six-week leadership campaign was long on generalities from the candidates and short on policy discussion. Only one debate was held.
School reform bill killed
When Stefanson announced her candidacy, she promised to scrap the controversial school reform plan, but Goertzen, the temporary premier, withdrew that piece of legislation first.
She’s also vowed to expand the provincial nominee program to attract more immigrants, support small businesses and create additional nursing positions.
Meanwhile, Glover has pledged to reassess the need for COVID-19 testing requirements for some jobs. She’s promised to increase funding for personal care homes and establish a seniors advocate office, partially inspired by her choice to work as an uncertified health-care aide during the pandemic.
No matter who wins, Thomas said the Tories, who won back-to-back elections, have a challenging road to climb to win over Manitobans. The PCs appear to have made gains, according to a recent Probe Research poll after Pallister’s retirement, but the poll suggests they still trail the NDP in support.
“When bonds of trust are broken, they’re exceedingly difficult to repair,” Thomas said.
The winning candidate will have to repair relationships with the province, all while demonstrating their separation from Pallister’s legacy, he said.