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Heather sees red, Wab’s somewhat blue: Why 2 Manitoba party leaders shed their skins in August

For much of the month of August, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats coloured a little outside their usual ideological lines.

The PCs and NDP trotted out policies and rhetoric that voters in this province had not seen during this election cycle.

These shifts could simply constitute campaign tinkering during the waning days of the summer, when voters may not be paying as close attention to the election as they are expected to do next week, when the formal campaign begins.

Or they could mark the start of a more substantive shift in campaign strategy, as both the PC and NDP war rooms  recognize they may need to take more risks if they want to crack open what for now appears to be a very close race.

For the PCs, the shift in August mainly involved Heather Stefanson’s tone. During the first 14 months after she replaced Brian Pallister as Manitoba’s premier and PC party leader, she appeared to be concerned with convincing the electorate she’s a kinder, less bombastic and more empathetic leader.

Stefanson followed that initial period up with generous spending announcements spread out over the first seven months of 2023. But then August arrived and Stefanson took a step to the right.

Channelling both Pallister and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, she stood at a St. Vital intersection on a Friday afternoon and pledged to fight “the NDP-Liberal carbon tax” in court. In an instant, Stefanson jettisoned the persona of a centrist conservative in favour of a new guise — an aggrieved and angry populist.

Why single out that one announcement? It is fair to question how Stefanson could reconcile what she stated that afternoon with what one must assume she knows given her position as premier.

The carbon tax is federal, not provincial. This PC government previously vowed to stop suing the federal government over carbon taxes. Stefanson’s claim that this tax is unfairly applied to “clean and green” Manitoba Hydro belies the fact it’s slapped on sales of natural gas, not hydroelectric power.

Finally, Stefanson’s suggestion that Manitoba ought to be exempt from the tax because this province is responsible for a hundredth of China’s greenhouse-gas emissions is especially odd, considering China’s population is one thousand times greater.

Bragging you’re a worse polluter than China on a per-capita basis is an unusual way to convince anyone you ought to receive more credit for being green.

A woman in a grey suit speaks behind a podium with several people standing behind her.
Manitoba PC Leader Heather Stefanson says she would take the federal government to court again if necessary over the carbon tax on Manitoba Hydro bills. (Warren Kay/CBC)

But that was just one announcement. Stefanson further adopted her new Angry Premier persona early this week, when she took to Facebook and Instagram in a video to deride the province’s largest public-service union for going on strike in search of higher wages.

“That’s where I draw the line,” she said in the video. Her office then issued the very same line in a response to a question about funds for a search of the Prairie Green landfill.

It is possible the PC campaign wants the public to see Stefanson as more steadfast in her convictions. Setting aside the question of whether the longtime Tuxedo MLA is convincing in her effort to appear to be aggrieved by anything — only Pierre Poilievre does a convincing Pierre Poilievre imitation — this would not the worst makeover strategy for an unpopular premier.

After all, the famously prickly Brian Pallister won two elections while claiming he did not care whether people liked him. There may be nothing for Stefanson to lose by adopting the same tactic as Pallister.

Or there could be a lot to lose. If the PCs’ hopes of clinging to power rests with retaining swing constituencies in suburban Winnipeg neighbourhoods, sounding angry may hurt Stefanson more than help.

Anger only really serves to motivate the most ideologically fervent members of a party base, whether it’s the PCs or the NDP. The fickle and far more mild-mannered voters who swing back and forth between those two parties are among the least likely people to be swayed by Suddenly Angry Tuxedo MLA.

The NDP, meanwhile, also appears to be trying to sustain some anger among its base. During the waning months of the pandemic, the NDP jumped out to a huge lead over the PCs on the basis voters are angry about the state of health care.

That’s why the party spends so much time talking about health care. That’s also why it seemed so odd when NDP Leader Wab Kinew promised to cut the provincial gasoline tax.

It was an off-brand August pledge for a party that tries to portray itself as stronger on the environment as the Tories and has not had a lot of experience championing tax cuts.

A man in a fall jacket stands at a podium, in front of a gas station across the street.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew announced in August that his party will cut the Manitoba provincial gas tax on a temporary basis if it is elected on Oct. 3. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Kinew has attempted to explain this shift as consonant with NDP principles. The party’s working-class roots mean the NDP ought to care about affordability, he said on Friday.

But just as voters may have trouble buying the angst of Angry Stefanson, they can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at Tax-Cutting Kinew.

When the formal campaign starts on Tuesday, it’s possible Manitobans will once again see more familiar versions of these two leaders.

If we don’t, then perhaps the two leading parties fear there’s an electoral logjam in the way of a majority government on Oct. 3 — and it may be advantageous to blow it up. Only the next round of political polls will reveal whether the race really is that close.

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