Manitoba politics is in a state of suspended animation after Premier Brian Pallister was undermined by his cabinet but appears unwilling to immediately step aside.

Manitoba politics is in a state of suspended animation after Premier Brian Pallister was undermined by his cabinet but appears unwilling to immediately step aside.

There's talk about a prorogation of the legislature, retaliatory strikes from Pallister, or even a standoff that could provoke an election.

"We're into a twilight zone period, in which the premier continues to be premier and other people are vying for the leadership," said University of Manitoba political scientist Christopher Adams.

One week after Pallister announced he’d step down before the next election, Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson resigned from cabinet to become the first declared candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

One week after Pallister announced he’d step down before the next election, Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson resigned from cabinet to become the first declared candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"We've gone from quite low-key, fairly opaque comments about the tone set by the premier, to almost outright rebellion."

On Wednesday, Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson resigned from cabinet to become the first declared candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party — just one week after Pallister announced he’d step down before the next election.

She announced she’d scrap Bill 64, an education reform bill that has become politically toxic, even among the Tory base outside the Perimeter Highway.

Glover on fence about PC run

Former Winnipeg Conservative MP Shelly Glover says she is still considering whether to run for the PC leadership.

Former Winnipeg Conservative MP Shelly Glover says she is still considering whether to run for the PC leadership.

“This is a big decision that I am considering with family, friends and party members,” Glover wrote Thursday, saying she is waiting to see the party’s leadership campaign rules.

“Although leadership provides an opportunity to rebuild the party and hit the reset button, I believe strongly in a team approach to transformation, so I’m taking the time to consult widely,” Glover wrote to the Free Press.

Glover describes herself on LinkedIn as a “retired police officer and recovering politician.”

She said she would repeal Bill 64, implement a seniors advocate, restore the Mature Women's Centre at Victoria Hospital and apologize on behalf of the party for “insensitive” comments made by Premier Brian Pallister, which Indigenous leaders deemed to be racist.

 

—Dylan Robertson

The roughly 15 MLAs who surrounded Stefanson at her news conference cheered in approval, including Education Minister Cliff Cullen, who is responsible for shepherding the bill through the legislature. In the past, he argued that false information had made the reforms unpopular.

His actions are a breach of a fundamental tenet of the Westminster model of government in which a minister who can’t support government policies must resign.

"The majority of the caucus and the cabinet have taken a firm position. They can’t walk it back," said Raymond Hébert, a political science professor emeritus at Université de Saint-Boniface.

Hébert said it was stunning that Stefanson won over 24 of her 35 fellow Tory MLAs just a week after Pallister said he would step down, suggesting there is widespread discontent among his caucus.

He argued Pallister’s team needs to revoke Bill 64 as soon as possible, or face a revolt that rivals the dramatic downfall of former NDP premier Greg Selinger.

Stefanson announced she’d scrap Bill 64, an education reform bill that has become politically toxic, even among the Tory base outside the Perimeter Highway. (Matt Goerzen/The Brandon Sun files)

Stefanson announced she’d scrap Bill 64, an education reform bill that has become politically toxic, even among the Tory base outside the Perimeter Highway. (Matt Goerzen/The Brandon Sun files)

"If they can't manage that, then I think all hell could break loose, either within caucus or cabinet, or the party."

PC sources say senior officials have discussed proroguing the legislature, an effective restart button that would kill Bill 64 and other legislation that has been delayed by NDP tactics.

Adams suggested it would make sense for Pallister to formally step down and have an interim premier until the PCs choose their leader. One choice could be Kelvin Goertzen, who cannot endorse anyone because he is house leader, and has stated that he does not want to be premier.

"He’s respected widely in the caucus, so that might be one approach," said Adams.

"My thinking with the premier is the more people push him to do something, the more he resists it."

As chairman of the Council of the Federation, Pallister is eager to oversee the premiers meeting set for Winnipeg on Oct. 5 to 7, after the federal election.

The premier is banking on convincing the newly elected federal government to commit to more generous health transfers at the meeting. Such a move would allow Pallister to end his political career with a victory.

The question is, will he make it to that point?

One source said the premier was livid after Stefanson’s campaign launch on Wednesday and that he is looking to take action against the MLAs who lined up behind her. The former health minister is the front-runner to be the next premier.

"The retribution began yesterday,’’ the Tory insider told the Free Press Thursday.

"There is certainly speculation in the party machinery that the premier is angry enough that he could consider moving ministers."

MLA Heather Stefanson annoucned her leadership run to be premier and leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative  party at the South Winnipeg Community Centre in Winnipeg. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

MLA Heather Stefanson annoucned her leadership run to be premier and leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party at the South Winnipeg Community Centre in Winnipeg. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

There are concerns Pallister could declare a vote on Bill 64 a matter of confidence, a game of brinkmanship that could trigger a snap election after months of the PCs polling at historical lows.

However, the legislature isn’t scheduled to sit until October, and the government could decide to delay that.

Spokespeople for Pallister and Stefanson did not respond to interview requests about the gulf between the premier and his caucus. Cullen’s staff claimed he was away Thursday.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the PCs are putting the public’s concerns on the backburner, such as a safe return to school and the preparation for the fourth wave of the pandemic, fuelled by the delta variant of concern.

Instead, the Tories seem focused on internal party conflict versus government business.

"They're in such a desperate scramble to distance themselves from Mr. Pallister's legacy that they're ignoring some pretty fundamental functions of our democracy," Kinew said.

He said Cullen should leave cabinet, arguing it makes no sense for him to be education minister when he is opposed to his main legislation.

"If you don't support a bill, you're supposed to resign (from cabinet)," Kinew said. "I think the other folks (in cabinet) need to think long and hard about what it is they're trying to do."

Kinew also argued the MLAs who support Stefanson are trying to change the channel on decisions they supported as a caucus.

For example, Stefanson seconded Bill 64 when the government tabled it last November. She was health minister during the disastrous second and third waves, in which Manitoba became the only province that had to airlift ICU patients to other provinces, yet on Wednesday she insisted the health-care system isn’t at a crisis point.

"It’s a clear sign that nothing’s going to change," Kinew said.

Hébert said that perception could empower an outside candidate for the PC leadership, such as former Winnipeg Conservative MP Shelly Glover and current rural Tory MP Candice Bergen.

But until the PCs determine who’s calling the shots, confusion could lead the party to turn on itself, Hébert argued.

"Things can't stay where they are. It's just impossible with such radically different positions taken by Pallister (versus) the majority of his caucus and cabinet."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca