And they're off: What Manitoba's parties hope to achieve in this early election

While the overall outcome of the 2019 Manitoba election may be a foregone conclusion — no government has been defeated after a single term in this province since Howard Pawley's NDP defeated Sterling Lyon's PCs in 1981 — there's still a lot at stake between now and Sept. 10.

The PCs want to win big again. The NDP wants to bounce back. Here's how they hope to do it.

Another big win for the PCs and leader Brian Pallister would allow the party to claim, convincingly, that Manitobans are on board with efforts to change health care and eliminate the provincial deficit. (CBC)

On the cusp of an election expected to formally start Monday afternoon, PC leader Brian Pallister was given another chance to explain why voters are going to the polls a year ahead of schedule.

Initially, Pallister famously suggested voters don't want anything to distract from the province's 150th birthday next year. His updated rationale is more nuanced: The province is changing, he said on Friday, so voters ought to be given a chance to decide whether they approve of the way the Tories are adapting to this change.

"There are a number of new challenges that have emerged that we want to pay attention to," Pallister told reporters on the north bank of the Assiniboine River, identifying the methamphetamine crisis as one of those challenges and suggesting his party will soon unveil a number of new economic ideas.

"If you respect the intelligence of Manitobans as we do, as I do, you would trust them to make the decision about who they want to lead them," said Pallister, suggesting only his party has the guts to make difficult changes to health care and other big-ticket spending areas.

"We are willing to subject ourselves to the judgment of the people of Manitoba because we trust Manitobans."

Pallister identified meth as an emerging issue. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

In other words, Pallister's new election rationale is something even the opposition parties can get behind: So much has changed in Manitoba since the Tories came to power in April 2016, it's time for a referendum on their governance.

It doesn't matter whether this is credible.  It doesn't matter if this is nonsense. It also doesn't matter if the only reason an election is taking place on Sept. 10 is the PCs are well ahead in the polls, flush with money and are in position to easily win a second consecutive term in office. 

The rationale for the early election becomes irrelevant as soon as Pallister asks Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon to dissolve the legislature. All that matters now, for all four mainstream Manitoba parties, is how well they can meet their respective objectives over the course of a 29-day campaign.

While the overall outcome of the election may be a foregone conclusion — no Manitoba government has been defeated after a single term since Howard Pawley's NDP defeated Sterling Lyon's PCs in 1981 — there's still a lot at stake between now and Sept. 10.

Can the PCs maintain their massive plurality?

In 2016, the Tories didn't just win, but won big, securing 40 spots in the 57-seat Manitoba Legislature. While the party was forced to punt Assiniboia's Steve Fletcher and Emerson's Cliff Graydon out of caucus, it will still head out on the campaign trail having held possession of 38 seats.

That figure may be difficult to maintain even for a popular party that's only heading into its second election. The Tories will be hard-pressed to hold on to every one of their seats in Winnipeg, where recent polls suggest the NDP enjoy similar levels of support.

Recapturing anywhere in the vicinity of 35 to 40 seats would allow the Tories to claim, very convincingly, that Manitobans are willing to trust the party to continue to slash away at the provincial deficit, make changes to the health-care system and even restructure education, as party is poised to do once a school-board study is complete.

Pallister is very clear about how he hopes to win big again. On Friday, he framed the election as a question of "trust and taxes," returning attention yet again to the former Selinger government's promise not to raise the PST but hike it anyway.

The loss of more than a handful of seats, however, could give the party some pause on the policy front — or even hasten Pallister's retirement from politics, something some observers expect in the coming years.

The PC leader was elected premier in 2016 on promises to slash the PST by a percentage point and eventually balance the provincial budget. He accomplished his first big task in July and is now within one provincial budget of completing  the second — provided he doesn't pledge to cut the PST even further.

Can the NDP bounce back?

In 2016, Greg Selinger's NDP suffered his party's worst defeat since 1988, losing scads of urban and rural seats. The New Democrats only won 14 seats in the last election and will leave this legislature with only 12.

The pressure is on new leader Wab Kinew to win back some of the party's former strongholds in Winnipeg and possibly a northern seat, such as Thompson. 

NDP leader Wab Kinew will spend the next month trying to win back Winnipeg seats, largely by trying to convince voters the Tories' health-care changes are not working out. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Like Pallister, Kinew has not been shy about his strategy. The NDP is bound to spend most of this election claiming the Tories' changes to health care are hurting Manitobans. 

Kinew doesn't have to win big to claim he's making progress. After getting spanked in 1988, former NDP leader Gary Doer gradually improved his party's fortunes in 1990 and 1995 before he finally became premier in 1999.

But if the NDP doesn't win a few more seats, Kinew could find himself at the centre of a leadership review. What's unclear is how many more seats will be enough to satisfy the party membership.

Can the Liberals expand their toe-hold?

When the legislature is dissolved, Manitoba's Liberals will campaign to expand their footprint in the chamber beyond four seats.

That tally may sound low, but it's actually the best showing for the Liberals since 1990. The challenge for new leader Dougald Lamont is to stand out from both the NDP and Tories in such a way as to convince voters they'd actually make a difference.

The path for Lamont is difficult. When former leader Jon Gerrard presented strong policy positions, his campaigns were largely ignored. Former leader Rana Bokhari was far less of a policy nerd but couldn't win her own seat. 

Liberal leader Dougald Lamont will be trying to improve upon the best Manitoba Liberal showing since 1990. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Lamont will have to be charismatic, dynamic and creative — and his party has to ramp up its organizational capacity in order to compete on the ground with the much more established Tory and NDP machines. Simply echoing what the NDP has been saying about PC changes to health care may not be enough for Lamont.

Can the Greens win a single seat?

In 2016, the Manitoba Greens came within a few hundred votes of placing a representative in the legislature when Dave Nickarz finished second to the NDP's Rob Altemeyer in Wolseley.

Manitoba Green leader James Beddome says the Greens are poised to break through in Wolseley. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The Greens still consider Nickarz and Wolseley their best chance to break in. But the Wolseley constituency map has been redrawn to include more neighbourhoods in the West End, where the NDP has been traditionally strong.

This means the Greens are still in a fight to win their first seat. Green leader James Beddome said he hopes to do even better, claiming voters are disenchanted with the other three parties.

This is a credible claim and Beddome has proven to be a strong performer in televised debates. But it remains to be seen whether the Green party is organized enough to mount strong campaigns in multiple constituencies.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.