Manitoba’s first female premier will be elected on Saturday as the Tory party distances itself from its predecessor

Manitobans will today find out who will be their first female prime minister when the Progressive Conservatives unveil their choice between the establishment’s favorite and the outsider who promises to shake up the status quo.

But the historic occasion – the selection of Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover for Manitoba’s highest office – could be marred because some party members did not have a chance to cast their vote. At least 1,200 people did not receive their postal vote days before the vote, prompting Glover to ask the party to postpone the vote.

“We hope the results have the highest level of confidence in their integrity and that everyone who has signed up to vote will have a chance to cast a vote,” said veteran political expert Paul Thomas.

“For that reason,” he said, “errors in the procedure are disappointing.”

However, these problems do not prevent the progressive conservatives from announcing their leadership on Saturday afternoon at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg. The results will be livestreamed in this story and CBC Save at. 16:30 CT, or earlier if the vote count ends faster than planned.

The party establishment has backed Stefanson in droves. (Darrin Morash / CBC)

Pallister’s resignation set the race in motion

It is rare in Manitoba’s history for members of the political party to elect their next leader and, by extension, the premiere at the same time. The race was triggered after former Prime Minister Brian Pallister, whose popularity was declining, withdrew two months before the Tories would choose his successor. Cabinet Minister Kelvin Goertzen, meanwhile, took over the job.

The winner between Stefanson and Glover will be sworn in as a premiere at a later date.

Stefanson, a longtime MLA in the prestigious Winnipeg constituency Tuxedo, has been the overwhelming choice among Tory opinion leaders, with almost all members of the party’s caucus – who are not obligated to remain neutral – supporting her. She has also received the favor of Conservative MPs, government officials, party leaders and business leaders.

“I think Heather Stefanson is definitely the best choice,” said Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

But she carries baggage from being a staunch supporter of Pallister’s government, which became unpopular during his declining months in office. She has promised a more conciliatory leadership approach, but her words may fall short, Thomas said.

“People who were tired and frustrated with Pallister even angered him … might say, ‘She should have spoken up,'” Thomas said.

Political opponents have not wasted time tying Stefanson to what they perceive as the party’s past mistakes. Stefanson was health minister during the catastrophic third wave of the pandemic, when Manitoba had to send patients out of the province.

Glover, a former Conservative lawmaker and Winnipeg police officer, has been the underdog candidate from the beginning, but Thomas says she has appreciated her outsider status. She has claimed that the party has lost touch with the Manitobans and must change its approach, otherwise the Manitobans will change the government.

“She’s a feisty person. She’s a fighter. Her policies are being taught on the streets,” Thomas said, describing the leadership offer from former minister in Stephen Harper’s government as a “counterweight to all the pressure to anoint Heather Stefanson.”

Glover, however, had to throw a wide network of support to pick up supporters beyond the party’s establishment. She has been accused of courting opponents of pandemic restrictions. She has criticized mandatory vaccination or testing for some front-line workers and forged so-called “economic shutdowns” that harm companies.

“She should be reluctant with her own views and avoid condemning people who had more extreme views in the party,” Thomas said.

“She just could not give up anywhere because she participated in the race behind.”

The six-week leadership campaign was long on generalities from the candidates and short on political discussions. Only one debate was held.

Glover has enjoyed his role as the outsider in the PC leadership race. (Ian Froese / CBC)

School reform has been killed

When Stefanson announced her candidacy, she promised to scrap the controversial school reform plan, but Goertzen, the interim prime minister, first withdrew that law.

She has also promised to expand the provincial nominated program to attract more immigrants, support small businesses and create additional nursing positions.

Meanwhile, Glover has promised to reassess the need for COVID-19 test requirements for some jobs. She has promised to increase funding for personal care homes and establish a senior law firm, inspired in part by her choice to work as an uncertified health assistant during the pandemic.

No matter who wins, Thomas said the Tories, who won two-back elections, have a challenging path to climb to win over Manitobans. The PCs appear to have made progress, according to a recent study by Probe Research after Pallister’s retirement, but opinion polls suggest they are still following the NDP in support.

“When trust bonds are broken, they are extremely difficult to repair,” Thomas said.

The winning candidate will have to repair relations with the province, all the while demonstrating their separation from Pallister’s legacy, he said.

The Tories celebrate their 2019 election victory under the leadership of Brian Pallister. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

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