Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister launched a provincial election campaign on Monday a year ahead of schedule as the Progressive Conservative Leader faces a weak opposition and seeks to secure a second term on a platform of tax cuts and restrained spending.
In his three years as Premier, Mr. Pallister has been among several conservative provincial leaders at odds with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, especially over the issues of climate change and carbon taxes. The Sept. 10 election in Manitoba could be a preview of conservative fortunes nationally when Canadians vote federally a little more than a month later.
Mr. Pallister, who announced the 29-day campaign on the legislature grounds in Winnipeg, characterized his re-election platform as “trust and taxes.” He spent much of his first news conference attacking NDP Leader Wab Kinew over troubles in his personal life. He also pledged to continue with a plan to cut taxes and find savings in health care and education.
The New Democrats, who were reduced to Official Opposition status in the previous election, have said they will focus on health care after Mr. Pallister oversaw the closing of hospital emergency departments in Winnipeg and the sacking of several hundred nurses.
“The choice ahead of us can be summed up in three words: Forward or backward,” said Mr. Pallister, who ended 17 years of NDP rule when the PCs won power in 2016 with Manitoba’s largest majority in more than a century.
The Tory government cut the provincial sales tax by one percentage point earlier this summer, and Mr. Pallister has promised more tax cuts.
The Progressive Conservatives have a campaign a war chest several times larger than that of their opponents, the NDP, the Liberals and the Green Party, and a year before the province’s fixed-election law required a vote. Mr. Pallister had previously said he would move up the election from Oct. 6, 2020, to avoid conflict with the province’s 150th anniversary. On Monday, he said only that his government needs a new mandate.
Mr. Pallister, a businessman and former federal member of Parliament, stood by his party’s decision to run ads highlighting Mr. Kinew’s past, including criminal convictions, which have received record suspensions, and an accusation of assault from a former girlfriend.
Mr. Kinew acknowledged a “difficult period” in his life and apologized in a book published before he was elected to lead the NDP. He’s said the incidents, which happened more than a decade ago in his 20s, don’t reflect who he is today.
Earlier on Monday morning, Mr. Kinew pledged an NDP government would reopen two emergency departments in Winnipeg.
“It is going to take time to undo the damage that Mr. Pallister has caused to our health-care system,” the NDP Leader told supporters.
Paul Thomas, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, said the PCs are unlikely to win as many seats as they did in 2016, but re-election seems all but certain.
Despite a number of gaffes and criticisms of the Conservative leader, including long vacations at his home in Costa Rica, where he does not access his government e-mail, Mr. Pallister’s popularity has not waned much.
“The Conservatives have made tough decisions on the budget and health care, they’ve also picked some fights with Ottawa, but their popularity seems to be in the mid-40s. It hasn’t hurt them,” Prof. Thomas said, adding that Mr. Kinew should be prepared to be in Opposition for at least one more term if he hopes to enter the premier’s office.
According to Scott MacKay, the president of Winnipeg-based polling firm Probe Research, Mr. Pallister has been preparing over the summer for a campaign of attacking former NDP governments. Mr. MacKay said it’s not clear whether Manitobans are ready to turn the government back over to the New Democrats.
“Mr. Pallister’s personality is extremely combative. That seems to be his style and that’s something we’re not used to," he said. "We had years of affable people leading the province. We look at him on the carbon tax and lots of other things and we see an abrasive style, but so far that hasn’t changed his popularity.”
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