It's official. The campaign to find the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba is a piping-hot mess.
From the moment the official race to succeed Brian Pallister began in late summer, it has been skewed contest.
MLA Heather Stefanson used overwhelming support in the elected caucus to force the party to adopt an unconscionably short timetable to limit the number of people who might run against her. If you start counting from mid-September, when nominations closed and official candidates were identified, through to the leadership vote on Oct. 30, the entire leadership campaign will have unfolded over only six weeks.
Meanwhile, former MP and federal cabinet minister Shelly Glover has barnstormed around the province undermining public-health orders and flirting dangerously with COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
While all this was going on, there lurked concerns about memberships sold by former party official Ken Lee, who was ultimately declared ineligible to run for leader. Manitoba's election commissioner is investigating to see whether Lee's campaign offered to buy memberships for people who wanted to vote in the leadership selection. Lee, meanwhile, is still grumbling about the decision to keep him out of the race.
This week, a woeful campaign became even more woeful when NDP Leader Wab Kinew revealed his party had been contacted by the Glover campaign in a bid to dish some dirt on Stefanson. Kinew would not detail what it was that Glover wanted the public to know about her opponent, only that she was using an opposition party to launder the information.
None of this is unprecedented. Internal party politics, in particular that which surrounds leadership races, is the dirtiest politics of all. But still, this has been a morally bankrupt campaign, even by modern standards.
It has also been alarmingly low-key, given all that is at stake.
Throughout the campaign, both candidates have maintained an eerie silence about what kind of government they would lead. Save for Stefanson's pledge to kill an education overhaul bill, and Glover's waffling on vaccine mandates and pledging to save the Dauphin jail, neither Tories nor the general public have any clear idea what either candidate stands for.
And that's a problem, given that Manitoba Tories are being afforded the rare but not unprecedented opportunity to not only pick a new leader, but a new premier as well, some 23 months before the next general election.
Throughout the campaign, both candidates have maintained an eerie silence about what kind of government they would lead.
It is not typical for a governing party to change leaders in mid-mandate. In most instances, the leader waits to pull the plug until it's closer to election day. The new leader doesn't get much time to govern after being sworn in as premier.
But there have been some exceptions.
In 2012, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty left the leadership of the Liberal party less than two years into his mandate. Cabinet minister Kathleen Wynne won the leadership in early 2013, and the right to govern for 16 months before she had to face the electorate. She won the 2014 election but lost in 2018 to current Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford.
The rules of parliamentary democracy allow for such transitions but it's important to note the Ontario Liberal party put quite a lot of effort into forging a leadership campaign that showcased the six candidates seeking to replace McGuinty.
The timeline for that leadership campaign was also quite short — just three months — but even so, the party managed to host five debates before delegate selection meetings took place in each electoral district. Which is a good thing when a small number of citizens are given the privilege of picking the next first minister.
Manitoba PCs could have easily taken the same approach, pushing the leadership vote back until December or even January 2022. That would have given the party time to showcase the two candidates, and the public time to figure out who was going to assume the premiership.
But that's not what happened. Stefanson used her internal leverage to compress the campaign into a hilariously short time frame. As for open debate, there has been a single leadership forum hosted by the Conservative Club of Manitoba. Tory sources say the party has not made any effort to hold any additional debates or forums, which again may speak to Stefanson's continuing control over internal party mechanisms.
However, that's hardly the only way the two candidates are steering clear of public scrutiny. They are also largely refusing to comment on major issues of the day.
Both candidates were asked to comment on the news Dr. Sandor Demeter, a key member of the Health Science Centre's nuclear medicine department, was leaving Manitoba because of years of austerity and "a dysfunctional" culture. Both Glover and Stefanson refused interview requests from the Free Press, choosing instead to release statements that said they would make efforts to stop top physicians from leaving the province but not how they would do it.
It's hard to see how a leadership process like this is going to breathe new life into the moribund PC party. One of two women will ultimately win the leadership battle. But in doing so, they may very likely lose the general election war.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.