Manitoba

Progressive Conservatives vulnerable on health care, say experts, but is it enough to oust Pallister?

Before a Manitoba election expected to be dominated by health care, the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Pallister are vulnerable on the issue — but not necessarily in peril, one political watcher says.

Backlash against health-care overhaul potent, but 'we're not hitting the streets over this yet,' analyst says

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks to reporters after announcing the next provincial election as Sept. 10, 2019. (Ian Froese/CBC)

As Brian Pallister prepares for a provincial election, political observers say the weakest point in his armour may be the issue of health care — but it may not be enough to bring him down.

The government's main rivals — the New Democrats and Liberals — appear poised to run a campaign harnessing voter disgust over changes to Winnipeg's health-care system, after Pallister announced on Wednesday that voters will go to the polls on Sept. 10

Mary Agnes Welch, a principal at Probe Research, acknowledges people's concern about the overhaul, which has shuttered two emergency departments in Winnipeg so far, and overwhelmed the remaining ERs.

But she questions if the backlash will sway enough voters away from the Progressive Conservatives, which won a convincing majority government in 2016.

Huge outcry lacking: political analyst

"I think there's worry, I think there's concern, but I don't sense you know a huge public (outcry)," Welch said, "like we're not hitting the streets over this yet." 

"Barring some genuine chaos that affects people personally in a waiting room on a mass level, I think so far we are taking a bit of a wait-and-see attitude about these health-care changes."

Welch argues it's still smart of the NDP and Liberals to channel the frustration that festers. She expects health care to be the top campaign issue, particularly in the absence of a major scandal or overwhelming distaste for a government in its fourth year in power.

Health care is a significant concern for Winnipeggers, but pollster Mary Agnes Welch wonders if it's enough to sway the balance of power. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitobans care about health care in any election, "but I think this time people are really worried about health care and it is a legitimate fear with some real meat to it," Welch said.

"It's not crazy for the opposition parties to make health care a key campaign issue."

Raymond Hébert, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of St. Boniface, echoes the worry over health care, describing it a "pretty ripe apple just waiting to be plucked off the trees."

He said the Progressive Conservatives may be dogged by the scrutiny at St. Boniface Hospital, where a woman died last week after waiting hours in an ER that had turned people away that day.

Overhaul may have happened too fast

There's also frustration over the move to close the ER at Concordia Hospital this month and the expected September closure of the emergency department at Seven Oaks. Both hospitals are converting the space into urgent care centres.

"It's an issue that's mushrooming in Winnipeg," Hébert told CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa on Wednesday. "And I think it points to the fact that perhaps this government has gone too fast in implementing changes — necessary changes, I believe — to the health-care system."

The last quarterly poll from Welch's firm, conducted in March, found support for the Tories dropped three percentage points to 32 per cent in Winnipeg, while the NDP surged ahead on the backs of 36 per cent of decided and leaning voters. 

Ambulances wait outside the St. Boniface emergency room, which last week turned people away because of "critical and unsafe levels" of patient flow. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The pollster doesn't expect a big shift in the numbers since, except perhaps the provincial Green party benefiting from national momentum.

She said the numbers cannot speak to election performance when there's a summer in between, when Manitobans aren't thinking about the election.

"They're thinking about the cottage. They're going to start thinking about this maybe after Labour Day, and until then this is a pretty fluid situation."

The provincial election will occur just six weeks before a return to the ballot box for the federal vote.

Welch thinks voter fatigue may be a overblown concern, like Pallister said on Wednesday, but elections in quick succession are draining on the volunteers and donors who fuel campaigns.

Voters getting to know Kinew

This exhaustion may hurt Pallister's party, but also his rivals, Welch said.

The Progressive Conservative may counteract any fatigue with a mighty advertising campaign, since they're flush with more money than any other party.

A tease to their advertising effort is a 33-second attack ad, launched on Facebook this week, that refers to NDP Leader Wab Kinew's criminal past, specifically his assault of a taxi driver in his early 20s, more than a decade ago.

The reach of the ad campaign is limiting, but Welch said "there's still room to define Wab in the public's mind, and that is not a crazy political strategy."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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