Manitoba: Pallister Goes to the Polls a Year Early

Seats at Dissolution

Progressive Conservative Party (Premier Brian Pallister) – 38 seats

New Democratic Party (Wab Kinew) – 12 seats

Manitoba Liberal Party (Dougald Lamont) – 4 seats

Independent MLAs – 2 seats

Manitoba First Party (David Sutherland) – 1 seat

Green Party of Manitoba (James Beddome) – 0 seats

Total: 57 seats (29 needed for a majority), roughly 22,000 people per riding


Early Election Call

While most of Canada’s politicians and observers prepare for the upcoming Federal election this fall, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister ensured there will be one more provincial election to fight first. On Monday, Pallister formally asked Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve Manitoba’s legislature and officially kick off a one-month election campaign culminating on September 10, a full year ahead of the previously scheduled date of October 2020.

For Pallister and his Progressive Conservatives, there is only one valid reason to go to the polls a year early despite what he may publicly state – that another majority government is within reach. Pallister made a calculated political decision to fulfill enough of his central campaign promises, namely cutting the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) by a full percentage point, to be deemed trustworthy and credible in the eyes of Manitobans.

At the same time, Pallister is confident his main opposition, the New Democratic Party led by new leader Wab Kinew, are not far enough removed from the reputation of the last NDP government which fell resoundingly in 2016. Calling the election one year early is difficult for any opposition party to handle, let alone one already behind in fundraising and public opinion polling. Recent polls indicate as much as 42 percent of decided and leaning voters are choosing the PCs compared to 30 percent for the NDP, with some blaming Kinew’s troubled past and lack of experience as major issues.

In other story lines, the Manitoba Liberal Party is still trying to regain relevance on the provincial scene with only 4 of the province’s 57 seats, their best showing since the 1990 campaign. Meanwhile, the Green Party of Manitoba is attempting to surpass its vote share of just over 5 percent in the 2016 election and secure its first ever seat in the Manitoba Legislature.

What to Watch For

The main parties are well into campaign mode, with many platform commitments already public. As the election heats up, here are three main themes to watch for:

The Key Question – Who do Manitobans Dislike More?

For any political party, it is all too easy to believe that your opposition is universally disliked, though this is rarely the case.

The NDP has led with platform commitments wholly targeted at reversing decisions made by Pallister’s PC government. For example, reopening closed emergency rooms in two Manitoba hospitals and restoring the position of assistant deputy minister in the Bureau de l’éducation française. If Manitobans do not believe Pallister and the PCs have wronged them, especially on the health-related issues that the NDP are poised to focus on, these policies that promise to return Manitoba to the way things were will not resonate.

On the other hand, Pallister’s early rhetoric is seized with the idea of tying Kinew and the NDP to the deficit and distrust that plagued the final years of previous NDP Premier Greg Selinger’s reign.  By reminding Manitobans about Selinger’s broken promise not to raise the PST, Pallister can contrast his party and their popular PST cut at every turn.

The tactic that elicits more emotion towards the rival party will ultimately prove more successful.

Affordability vs Bold Ideas:

The Manitoba election will be filled with some bold policy ideas, but they are almost all being proposed by the province’s left leaning parties. The PCs seem to be content with targeted relief that directly impacts their supporters compared to ambitious but challenging policy commitments made by the other parties.

For example, the Green Party has promised to lower the voting age to 16 and to end homelessness in 6 years. The NDP have promised to increase the minimum wage and increase income taxes on the wealthy. The Liberals have even promised to introduce an all new Manitoba Police Service.

Yet, Pallister has picked a lane focused solely on affordability and creating wealth for middle class voters who polls say think favourably of his first three years in office. Symbolic cuts to the PST on services like probate fees and home insurance that save the average Manitoba family $70 a year, while also rolling back vehicle registration fees that cost $35 a year for each motorist. Lower income families may not have a will, a car, or even home insurance – let alone enough of these items to complain about the provincial tax rate on them. By staying close to affordability issues that only impact his base while highlighting the PST he already cut, Pallister is getting maximum return for minimal cost.

Impact on Other Levels of Government:

The Manitoba election will prove an interesting case study for many other jurisdictions, including Ontario and the Federal government.

First, none of the Manitoba parties are truly troubled by running a deficit. Manitoba’s spending was a key issue in the 2016 election, yet Pallister only promised to eliminate the deficit by the end of his second term. The deficit now stands at $360 million and will likely be eliminated by 2022-23, where it is estimated to be only $28 million. The NDP have promised a balanced budget by 2023-24, signaling a similar path to balance and that deficits are simply not a major issue. This should likely continue the trend seen across the country of vague or flexible commitments to balanced budget timelines. Political parties seem to have reached consensus that voters want the promise of responsible spending, but not the immediacy of action that sees their lives directly impacted by austerity.

Second, the province of Manitoba is currently struggling with a methamphetamine epidemic. All four parties have promised some form of action on the topic. Rarely does a social problem permeate the political spectrum so strongly. This topic will be taken seriously by all and can potentially provide interesting policy debates and discussions for other governments struggling with opioid and drug addiction issues as well.

Third, the Manitoba election will have two large national implications. As Premier, Pallister had to publicly walk back support for a national carbon price after the Federal government refused to allow Manitoba to freeze the incremental increases in the carbon tax. A renewed Pallister majority may strengthen the anti-carbon tax campaign of conservative Premiers, while a poor finish by the PCs could reinforce national climate action on the eve of the 2019 Federal election.

Meanwhile, Pallister has been noted as a champion for breaking down inter-provincial trade barriers, including being very vocal at Council of the Federation meetings with fellow Premiers. If Pallister fails to return to the Premier’s Office, it could end recent progress on one of the slowest moving files in the Federation.

Lastly, this election will be an interesting case study to evaluate the issue of taxpayer funded subsidies to political parties. In the last budget the PCs reduced the taxpayer funded rebates given to political parties for their election spending from 50 percent to 25 percent of eligible costs (though the PCs originally proposed getting rid of the rebate all together). However, the PCs also reduced the threshold for qualifying for rebates to only 5 percent of the popular vote from the previous 10 percent limit. This may make it harder for the smaller parties to recover from the costs of the election and set up the better fundraising PCs for long-term success and, potentially, encourage other governments to move further in this direction.

Overall Outlook

Since being elected Premier, Pallister has attempted to set his own course and one that does not always align directly with other provincial or federal agendas. For example, his promise to impose a $25 per tonne carbon tax was not warmly welcomed by his federal and provincial Tory cousins. Of course, Pallister later reversed course when the federal government deemed the provincial tax insufficient, but the ordeal appears to have given Pallister the hard-to-achieve image of being a leader who takes the fight against climate change seriously yet also stands up for people’s pocketbooks.

Polls suggest that the PCs are on track to return to power. However, snap elections can be risky ventures. Ontario’s David Peterson, Quebec’s Jean Charest, Alberta’s Jim Prentice and even Wilfrid Laurier all called elections in the third year of their mandate that they came to regret. However, Jean Chretien, John Diefenbaker and others used the maneuver successfully. The summer election and proximity to the federal election could simply confuse voters and depress turnout as more pressing concerns like Labour Day weekend and back-to-school take precedence.

Onlookers can expect the PCs to take great care in maintaining their current brand while reminding voters of the NDP’s past performance. They can also expect the NDP to ramp up their attacks on the Pallister government’s agenda over the last three years, leading to the ultimate question – who do Manitobans dislike more? For most Manitobans, that may not be so hard a question to answer.