Stefanson faces uphill climb

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Three spring traditions — The Masters golf tournament, World Men’s Curling Championship, and government budget season — have one thing in common. The playing conditions are of critical importance and are based on the surfaces where each take place.

Augusta National’s beauty shines every year. Every blade of grass, seemingly cut by hand for The Masters week, allows for great players to showcase their skills to the utmost. Even the famed azaleas seem to bloom on the command of a television director’s cue. With last weekend’s curling championship in Las Vegas? When TSN’s Russ Howard is noting scraping lines, dished ice and it’s blatantly obvious the world’s best players were performing in spite of the ice conditions, one hopes the event’s icemaker is in witness protection.

Manitoba’s governing Progressive Conservatives presented a budget on Tuesday, less than 550 days before a mandatory election date, and with recent reports of dismal public support. How bad? When the New Democrats have support levels inside Winnipeg of over 50 percent, and the Tories hover around 25 percent, that usually means the governing PCs will lose almost all of its seats inside the Perimeter. If any clearer proof was needed, the Fort Whyte by-election result should have offered a spotlight. There, Liberal Willard Reaves narrowly missed a win over Tory Obby Khan in the battle of the Bombers. Normally, Tory wins are all but guaranteed there.  Province-wide data indicates several PC seats outside of the capital are at risk as well. People who supported the PC Party in the past are clearly angry. According to the engagement data provided in the province’s 2022 budget documents, voters are most concerned about health care and education matters. Both are major factors in the government losing support.

Premier Heather Stefanson has no room for error in the days leading up to Election Day. For that, she too can look at the playing surface her predecessor left behind. While Brian Pallister did succeed in balancing the books pre-COVID, few were pleased with his handling on health care files, and his education reforms had the same reception a family of skunks might get at an outdoor wedding venue. Pallister justly deserves scorn for those matters, but Stefanson will receive the wrath of voters unless her team can right the ship of state.

There are some signs in the 2022 Budget showing Stefanson has heard the concerns. Those awaiting surgeries and medical tests should benefit from the extra $110 million allocated to solve those issues. Newer hospital buildings and clinics will come on line with $812 million set aside for those upgrades. Parents will have more access to affordable $10 per-day childcare with a $326 million investment. Those are good starts to change hearts and minds of voters. However, that exposes a couple long-standing problems within the government team as a whole.

Since its election in 2016, party strategists have frequently failed to effectively navigate the waters of media relations and communications. There have been changes made to government policy which make Manitoba a better province, but as Bruce Cockburn sang a few times, “If a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear?” They certainly don’t, if there are troubles sharing that good news. Pallister’s often prickly manner with the media was no help, especially once in power.

Failing to communicate successes and build relationships is bad enough. Those in the business world know it’s easier to earn a new customer and keep them happy than it is to regain lost business. It will be very difficult for the governing party to turn its fortunes around in time for the next election, based on public support levels today. Incumbent governments can succeed as advocates for change, if they are seen as credible advocates for that change. Stefanson and company will need to listen, show the public they’ve been heard, then act swiftly to prove to the voters they are serious about the public’s concerns.

It took about 2.5 years for the Pallister-led Progressive Conservatives to turn the tides on Greg Selinger’s NDP and secure a path to victory in 2016. Stefanson and her team don’t have that kind of time, and may well have a more difficult challenge ahead of them in 2024. It may be as difficult as reading the ice in Las Vegas or playing Amen Corner on Sunday at The Masters.

“Good is not good when better is expected.” — Vin Scully