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Can she lift Tory fortunes? Manitoba premier promises COVID relief and calmer waters

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefansonhas promised a more collaborative approach than her predecessor. And two months into the job, she has already reversed some of Brian Pallister's most unpopular decisions.

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefansonhas promised a more collaborative approach than her predecessor. And two months into the job, she has already reversed some of Brian Pallister's most unpopular decisions.

Political experts say Stefanson still has an uphill battle to revive Progressive Conservative fortunes in time for the 2023 provincial election, largely because of the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic, as it has done for almost two years now, tends to crowd out other actions that are being taken ... in terms of the public mind," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

"It's not the only thing that matters to the public, but it matters so much that they don't tend to notice some of the good things she's done."

The day Stefanson launched her leadership campaign, she promised to kill a bill that would have eliminated elected English-language school boards. Since becoming premier on Nov. 2, she has stopped a court fight with the federal government over carbon pricing, approved funding for some municipal projects that had stalled under Pallister, and promised to repeal a bill that imposed a wage freeze on public-sector workers.

Pallister had touted his agenda as bold. He once said his first term was a mandate for bold ideas and his second was a vote by the public for even bolder ones. 

Stefanson talks more about building bridges and acting on input from others. She appears interested in being more managerial and less confrontational.

"I think Manitobans are looking to calm the waters these days. They're looking for stability," Stefanson said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

"COVID has taken a lot out of people ... and what we need to do is provide that hope and opportunity to get them through this."

The pandemic has hit Manitoba hard. The province registered the second-highest, per-capita death rate to date behind Quebec. It has had to fly dozens of patients to other provinces to free up intensive care beds, and move other patients around within the province.

Vaccine distribution and uptake has outpaced the other Prairie provinces, but the health-care system- with little slack even before the pandemic — has seen surgery and diagnostic delays piling up.

A recent opinion poll by Probe Research indicated the Tories continued to lag behind the Opposition NDP, especially in Winnipeg, home to most legislature seats. A change in leadership appears not to have given the Tories much of a bump.

Stefanson's time as a cabinet minister, including a short term as health minister during one of the worst waves of the pandemic, has been a clear target for the NDP.

Still, one political watcher says that while Stefanson has a big hill to climb, the outcome of the election scheduled for October 2023 is not a given.

Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba, said the government's handling of the pandemic has left little time or space to scrutinize the NDP. If the pandemic ends, other topics that are potentially divisive for the Opposition, including funding levels for police, could come to the fore, he said.

"It's perfectly reasonable to think that suburban voters, that women, that middle-class voters in Winnipeg ... can be won back by the government if there are certain policy priorities set that are different from the past," Koop said.

"The Tories have basically let (Wab) Kinew chart this centrist course as leader of the NDP. They've let him focus on the issues that he wants to," Koop added.

"Is there some way to create tension between the centrist and the left-wing elements of the NDP? Well, absolutely there is."

For the immediate future, Stefanson's priorities include boosting hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients and finding ways to stop the growing backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures.

She recently set up a working group to advise on the latter and is promising more money for the former.

"What we need to do is ensure that we invest where it is needed, and obviously there's going to be a need for more supports in our health-care system."

If so, it will be yet another departure from the Pallister era. Before the pandemic, the Tories often kept annual health-care funding increases at or below the rate of inflation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 24, 2021.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press