Lagging in polls, Manitoba's premier appears to be choosing safe legislative agenda, observers say
Strong leadership on biggest challenges isn't the safe approach, but the right one: Stefanson's spokesperson
Premier Heather Stefanson's legislative agenda has so far been rather modest, political observers say.
In the spring sitting of the Manitoba Legislature, her Progressive Conservative government has introduced 26 pieces of legislation up to this point — but the proposed changes are hardly impactful to many people, one expert said.
"The number of bills that are major bills that would have a big impact within Manitoba are hard to find," said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"They just are not bills that will evoke a lot of controversy within society."
And maybe that's a relief for the Tories after the tumultuous end to Brian Pallister's tenure as premier, Thomas reasons. The former premier liked to say his legislative agenda was "bold," but it also proved unpopular. After Pallister resigned from office last year, his former colleagues scrapped five of his bills, including the controversial plan to transform the school system.
The bills that Stefanson introduced this spring "may be all part of a broad legislative strategy of trying to turn down the temperature and create more of a sense that this is a government that listened to the public," Thomas said.
Electronic vote counting
There are bills with seemingly broad appeal, such as permitting the use of electronic vote counting machines for provincial elections and providing more detailed budget information.
One piece of legislation, if passed, will develop a code of conduct for police officers and give people more time to file complaints with the Law Enforcement Review Agency. There are concerns these measures don't go far enough, but they are seen by some people as progress.
But overall, the Progressive Conservatives are not making waves in a major way, said Curtis Brown, a pollster at Probe Research.
"I think setting a safe course may not be the most exciting thing, but I think that is kind of, in some ways, what she was promising to do," Brown said.
He's referring to Stefanson's campaign to take over the PC leadership in which she promised a more collaborative approach to government. She vowed to listen to what Manitobans want, which may have prohibited any massive, wholesale changes from happening immediately, Brown said.
"If you're on the one hand saying, 'I'm going to listen,' and then on the other hand you're saying, 'I'm going to make this big, radical change or do this big thing' — those two things don't really go together," he said.
So far, her collaborative approach hasn't appeared to turn her party's fortunes around.
According to the latest Probe Research survey, the NDP has gained ground on the government, leading the Tories in popular support by 10 percentage points. It appears the government has not seen a sustained momentum boost since Stefanson became party leader more than five months ago.
Thomas said the government has to do more than be a kinder, less controversial version of its previous self to be re-elected in fall 2023.
"Steady as you go means that you're probably going to go at the next election," he said. "I don't think it gets you very far in political terms."
He said the government under Stefanson has made moves to suggest its policymaking approach isn't as rigid as Pallister's, such as stating her government will take a cautious approach in trying to balance the budget.
Big ideas needed: Thomas
But Thomas doesn't think the government has distinguished itself enough in the public's mind.
"They're still basically saying that Manitoba's success as an economy and a society depends on lower taxes, balanced budgets, deregulation and opening the doors to new business enterprises. That's been central to the conservative party message for the longest time."
He said the Tories need "to find some new policy ideas that tell you what they stand for, beyond balancing the budget and cutting taxes," while ensuring they hold onto a hallmark of Tory governance, which is fiscal responsibility.
The PCs can begin to chart that course next Tuesday with the release of the next provincial budget.
A spokesperson for the premier said the budget will focus on affordability, building a stronger health-care system and investing in our communities.
"Delivering on those commitments is neither safe nor non-contentious: it's the right course of action Manitobans expect from their government," said Sean Kavanagh, Stefanson's director of communications and planning, in an email.
He added Manitobans can also anticipate "strong and consistent leadership on the most challenging issues facing the province," including slashing the number of people waiting for surgeries and procedures, as well as mitigating the effects of inflation.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew wasn't willing to concede that Stefanson's government is any different from Pallister's, however.
"I think we still have those same concerns that we had under Brian Pallister around health care, around a lot of chaos in the health system and frankly, just a government that's not on the same page as the rest of Manitoba."
Kinew said the government is continuing in the footsteps of Pallister, and it wouldn't matter if there were 80 or 20 bills.