Heather Stefanson’s strategy to win the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba is simple: treat it less like a competitive race, and more like a palace coup.
Two weeks after current leader, Premier Brian Pallister, announced he was stepping down, Stefanson remains the only declared candidate. And for good reason: there is no formal leadership process and the party’s executive council — which decides how and when a new leader will be chosen — didn't meet until tonight.
Stefanson clearly wants an acclamation. While there is the risk of blowback when a leadership hopeful goes too big, too soon — Google Paul Martin and Liberal leadership for an excellent case in point — Stefanson has an ace up her sleeve, an insurance policy of sorts that may help her convince the party to acquiesce to her leadership aspirations.
Stefanson, along with 24 Tory MLAs who support her bid, and her campaign manager Jordan Sisson, who sits on the party’s board, will get to vote on the rules and timetable for the leadership.
The PC party executive council was to consider a series of recommendations from an internal working group on rules and a timetable based largely on past leadership races. Then, the board of directors, constituency association presidents and — wait for it — all Tory MLAs get to make suggestions and vote on the final rules.
It appears Stefanson's strategy worked. Tory sources confirmed last night that the party has set the bar pretty high for entry to the leadership race, and put in place a timetable that is so tight she may be the only candidate able to make it work.
Candidates will need a $25,000 upfront fee and 1,000 memberships to get on the ballot. The cut off for candidate applications is September 15th. Memberships can be sold up to September 30 and the convention and vote — if there is a vote — will take place on October 30th.
It's a set of rules that seem to be tailor made for the woman who declared her intention to seek the leadership even before the rules were created. Not impossible for another candidate to step in, but hardly the kind of process that prioritizes the recruitment of multiple candidates over a coronation.
When you combine the rules that were forged on Monday night along with her performance to date, it's really hard to believe the fix hasn't been in, and in for some time.
The first indication of a fix was Stefanson's pledge to kill the highly unpopular Bill 64, the complete overhaul of public school governance. That was a highly presumptuous promise to make given that Pallister had not set a date for his departure, the party had not set a date for a leadership convention and Bill 64 was slated to be debated and voted on in early October when the legislative session resumes.
At a news conference on Monday, Pallister was very coy about how all this as going to work out. However, he did say he expected the party will identify and install a new leader in "the next few weeks." It was a strong suggestion he already knew how this process was going to turn out, because Stefanson and her people had already worked their magic.
It should be said that internal party politics is the least altruistic of all forms of politics. There are fewer rules and more wiggle room for operatives to indulge in their baser instincts. All is most definitely fair in love, war and the race to find a new party leader.
However, while this Machiavellian scheming may be good for Stefanson’s career aspirations, it creates an unflattering picture of a governing party that is already extremely unpopular with the public.
Launching a campaign before the official campaign has started, and making promises only a premier could deliver, gives this the look and feel of a shotgun coronation.
Unfortunately, the PC party has not had a truly competitive leadership race since 1983, when Gary Filmon defeated Clayton Manness and Brian Ransom.
Since then, there have been two acclamations: Stuart Murray in 2000 and Pallister in 2012. There were three names on the ballot in 2006 but, respectfully, Ken Waddell and Ron Schuler were not viable threats to Hugh McFadyen, the ultimate winner.
When you can fit all of the people who have sought the leadership of a particular political party over the past 21 years into a mid-sized family car, it does say something about that party.
This leadership race is starting to look a lot like the one that produced Murray’s acclamation in 2000. Even though there was a shortage of candidates to take over the party after the NDP’s majority win in the 1999 election, the Winnipeg arm of the PC party ran a shock-and-awe campaign to drive any and all challengers out of the race.
Today, there are a lot of Tories who are desperate to have a truly competitive leadership race, with multiple candidates and ballots. Unfortunately, Team Stefanson seems poised to dash those hopes, once again.
Pallister once defended his acclamation by pointing out that when he put his name in the hat in 2012, "nobody else wanted the job." When you see how easily this party can be manipulated by the entitled and ambitious, it’s no wonder.
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.