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This article was published 31/10/2021 (208 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Heather Stefanson never really wanted to be the premier of Manitoba. The Tory MLA for Tuxedo was happy to sit around the cabinet table and blend in with her caucus colleagues. She has been a loyal party member most of her life and an MLA for almost 21 years. But running for premier was never on her bucket list.
"Was I necessarily looking for this?" Stefanson told the Canadian Press in an interview last month during the Tory leadership race. "Not really. But the opportunity sort of presented itself ... and I had many of my colleagues coming and asking me if I would consider doing it."
It’s one of the reasons few outsiders had Stefanson pegged as a leadership contender when former premier Brian Pallister resigned in September. She never seemed interested in the job.
Even her five years in cabinet — which included stints in justice, families and health — were unremarkable. Stefanson accomplished little of particular note during those years. Her role seemed more that of caretaker than trailblazer.
Still, Stefanson – who won the Tory leadership race Saturday and will be sworn in as Manitoba’s 24th premier – is competent, intelligent and has performed adequately in any job given to her.
What she lacks in political ambition she makes up for in diplomacy and collegiality. She is well liked in caucus and commands respect among her peers. After five years of Pallister’s combative and abrasive style, her conciliatory approach will be a breath of fresh air.
Stefanson’s leadership victory was not a surprise. She was the establishment candidate in the race. She had the support of virtually all caucus members, most of their constituency associations and many former Tory cabinet ministers. While the results were closer than Stefanson’s campaign expected (51 to 49 per cent against her opponent, former MP Shelly Glover), her caucus support and backing of longtime, loyal party members will carry more weight in the long run than the new, fleeting members Glover signed up. Loyal party members tend to stick around and work as volunteers during provincial elections. Rent-a-votes, people who buy memberships solely to cast a ballot in a leadership race (but have little interest in the party itself), often disappear. It’s one of the downsides of the one-member, one-vote system of electing party leaders.
Glover’s strategy of pandering to the anti-COVID-19 immunization crowd and opposing vaccine mandates as a wedge issue was effective in signing up new supporters. But it also alienated some longtime party members, many of whom were initially prepared to give Glover a chance as a legitimate contender. The more Glover peddled misinformation about vaccine mandates (and displayed a spectacularly poor grasp of basic provincial government issues), the less suited she became as a candidate for premier.
The Tories, meanwhile, have a long road ahead of them to regain the trust of Manitobans, which was severely eroded under Pallister. It’s unlikely Stefanson will make any sudden, substantive changes in her first few months in office (including the make-up of cabinet). Government has already withdrawn five contentious bills, including Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act. Beyond that (and the likely cancellation of Pallister’s second education property tax cut next year), policy changes under Stefanson are expected to be incremental. The immediate focus will be on rebuilding Manitoba’s crippled health-care system and changing the tone of government. Stefanson will likely build on the more collaborative, statesman-like approach outgoing Premier Kelvin Goertzen established during his brief time as first minister.
Stefanson probably had no idea a year ago she would run for the top job in government. She will now be sworn in as Manitoba’s first woman premier, a historic moment and an important development in bringing greater diversity to the highest level of power in the provincial government.
She will have two years before the next provincial election to demonstrate to Manitobans that she has what it takes to lead the province.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.