Prime Minister on the road again, with an eye on his re-election


Another day, another press conference away from the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.

On Monday, to the surprise of many news outlets, Premier Heather Stefanson hosted a media event outside Dauphin City Hall to announce an investment in Provincial Highway 5.

In terms of time and place, it was a smart political strategy.

First, it was good news about an investment in a highway. Not huge or groundbreaking, but the $13 million to build a new main highway access to the city in southwestern Manitoba is almost impossible to hate.

To top it off, no Winnipeg political reporters were present.

Premier Heather Stefanson announces the creation of a venture capital fund during an announcement at Torque Brewing on Friday. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press files)

The media advisory was sent shortly after 7 a.m. Monday. Even if it was theoretically possible to make the four-hour drive from Winnipeg in time to see the announcement, it would have been tight.

Thus, a prime minister who is regularly besieged in the provincial capital — for various reasons — allowed himself the luxury of announcing good news to a crowd of local elected officials (grateful for the investment), curious ( generally polite) and local media (very grateful to have a local event with the Prime Minister to lead their daily coverage).

The Dauphin Gathering is no exception. In the past month, there have been at least a half-dozen instances where Stefanson attended events away from the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and the critical eyes of journalists and opposition critics.

Stefanson visited a Winnipeg brewery to discuss a new government-sponsored venture capital fund, St. Boniface Hospital to confirm a major expansion of its emergency room, the former Bay building downtown for an announcement on a transfer of ownership to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, Brandon Curling Club to announce increased funding for the Sustainable Communities Fund, Toba Center for Children and Youth for a funding announcement and increased support for people seniors in a long-term care facility in Winnipeg.

Several times in April, these events forced Stefanson to miss Question Period — the daily verbal fist bumps between the ruling party and the opposition when the legislature is in session. In a few cases, the prime minister’s absence was due to other people’s schedules; in others, however, it was quite obvious that Stefanson was choosing a good news announcement over QP.

Besides the obvious appeal of not having to play the role of a punching bag for opposition MPs, there is a longer-term strategy at work.

Stefanson (second from left) donned a hard hat as the St. Boniface Hospital ER expansion was announced.  (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press files)

Stefanson (second from left) donned a hard hat as the St. Boniface Hospital ER expansion was announced. (Jessica Lee/Winnipeg Free Press files)

When political advisers say, as they often do, that there are no votes to be won in question period, they are usually right. Premiers rarely ‘win’ the support of QP’s push and parry – and that’s just in the bedroom.

In the hallways surrounding the current legislature, Stefanson and his cabinet must run the gauntlet of scrums with reporters. While absorbing such punishment from political opponents and journalists is a non-negotiable part of the prime minister’s job, it’s no surprise that prime ministers are asking for a bit of a break.

A break from verbal abuse isn’t the only benefit of escaping the legislative building. It’s hard to ignore the stark reality facing the Progressive Conservative Party: If Stefanson’s Conservatives are to be re-elected in the 2023 provincial election, it will have more to do with his forays outside the legislature. only with its performance inside.

Six months into her premiership, Stefanson is struggling to connect with voters. You can see evidence of this struggle in the poll results, which show the PCs are arguably doing worse than they were under former prime minister Brian Pallister.

When Stefanson took over last fall, there was a strong consensus that — whatever she brings to the job — she couldn’t do worse than the irritable Pallister.

The past few months have challenged this record.

Premier Heather Stefanson speaks during the transfer ceremony of the old Bay Building to the Southern Chiefs' Organization.  (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Heather Stefanson speaks during the transfer ceremony of the old Bay Building to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press files)

Getting out and about, while sprinkling goodies from the recently tabled provincial budget, isn’t just Stefanson’s way of escaping the drudgery of the legislature. She tries to bring her moribund party to life.

There is recent evidence to suggest the strategy is a winner.

NDP Premier Greg Selinger struggled to resonate with voters after taking over as leader from the charismatic Gary Doer in 2009. In the spring of 2011, however, spring and summer floods lifted Selinger out of the legislature and to visit affected communities.

Not only has the prime minister been well served by headlines reporting visits to the front lines, but he has been lucky enough to get out from under the daily dose of ritual abuse at the hands of the opposition.

Selinger not only bolstered his own personal popularity, but also built support within the NDP government. So much so that after appearing on the verge of defeat in the October 2011 election, the NDP headed for another majority government.

Skipping Question Period for good news funding announcements can cause journalists and opposition critics to howl with outrage. But in doing so, Stefanson shows that she has her sights set on the only prize that really matters to a politician: his re-election.

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Dan Lett


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