Perhaps still smarting from last July's PST increase, voters in two rural Manitoba constituencies sent the Selinger government a stinging rebuke on Tuesday.
The Progressive Conservatives were expected to win byelections in Morris and Arthur-Virden, seats that they won handily in the 2011 general election. And on Tuesday they did.
Manitoba's two new MLAs are Shannon Martin, a former Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business who won in Morris, and Doyle Piwniuk, a Virden insurance broker and financial planner.
The governing NDP saw its percentage of the vote fall in both ridings, especially in Arthur-Virden, where retired schoolteacher Bob Senff finished a distant third with 10 per cent of the vote. In the 2011 general election, the NDP candidate took 30 per cent of the ballots cast in the same riding.
"It was a referendum on the PST," said Piwniuk of Tuesday's byelections. However, he noted bad roads in his constituency and the Selinger government's decision to force tiny municipalities to merge also figured into the thumping the NDP took Tuesday night.
With the two victories, the Tories now have 19 seats in the legislature, compared with 37 for the NDP and one for the Liberals.
Cold temperatures and the major gas outage may have kept many voters away, but those who did venture out confirmed the Progressive Conservatives own the riding of Morris.
The PCs' Martin cruised to victory easily and will take up residence in the legislature when MLAs return to work March 6 and a new budget is presented by the Selinger government.
Martin said Tuesday night he can hardly wait.
"My very first order of business is giving a voice to the people of Morris," the 43-year Martin said. "They haven't had any kind of elected voice for 12 months now."
Martin said blame for low voter turnout should be laid at the feet of Premier Greg Selinger, who waited almost a year to call the vote.
"The government did everything it could to suppress the vote," he said. "It was pretty fortuitous that you had probably the coldest campaign in history"
As predicted months ago, when he declared his candidacy after former Tory MLA Mavis Taillieu resigned Feb. 12 last year, Martin won by a wide margin over his closest competitor, NDP candidate Dean Harder.
"I'm still excited to participate in democracy and go through this process," Harder said Tuesday night. "We knew from the get-go it would be an uphill battle in a riding that's been traditionally Conservative."
Jeremy Barber (Liberal), Ray Shaw (Independent) and Alain Landry (Green) finished up behind respectively.
The Red River Valley riding stretches from the town of Morris to Headingey and includes two towns hit by Saturday's natural gas pipeline blast near Otterburne. Elections Manitoban reports voter turnout on Tuesday (excluding advance polls) came in at less than 30 per cent. In the 2011 general election, voter turnout was 51 per cent.
Conservatives have held Morris since the mid-1950s and gave the party 74 per cent of the vote in the 2011 general election.
The PCs' sweeping victory in Arthur-Virden wasn't only a referendum on the government's NDP hike.
Tory victor Piwniuk said Tuesday there were at least two more important issues in the southwestern Manitoba riding, where oil and agriculture are the dominant industries.
One, was the Selinger government's move to force municipalities with populations of fewer than 1,000 to amalgamate with neighbouring jurisdictions. Piwniuk said that has caused "a lot of anxiety in a lot of different communities."
The other was the failure of the province to invest in area roads, which have taken a pounding because of the heavy equipment used in the oil industry, and the fact much of the grain in the area these days is moved off the farm in semi-trailers due to rail line abandonment and local elevator closures.
Piwniuk said both industries generate a lot of income for the provincial government, yet very little of it is reinvested in local roads, some of which are so bad as to be unsafe. "Even if a fraction (of the tax revenue generated by local industry) came back for infrastructure, we would have really good roads," he said.
NDP challenger Senff said he was disappointed at receiving only about one in 10 votes in the constituency.
"We knew it was a struggle right from the get-go," he said, adding that the PST hike was just one of the factors working against him on Tuesday. He said the Liberals, who finished second last night, carried over some momentum from an impressive showing in the federal byelection in the region in November that saw them almost defeat Conservative Larry Maguire.
Maguire's resignation from Arthur-Virden to run federally set up the byelection in western Manitoba Tuesday.
Manitoba Liberals saw their percentage of vote climb in the two rural byelections, and the party's new leader, Rana Bokhari, sees the results as a harbinger of good things to come.
Liberal candidate Floyd Buhler, a municipal employee, finished second in Arthur-Virden, taking about 17 per cent of the vote with most polls reporting Tuesday night.
Compare that with the 2011 general election, when the Liberals won less than four per cent of the vote in the southwest Manitoba riding.
In Morris, the party, represented by university student Jeremy Barber, upped their vote to 11 per cent from 6.6 per cent, finishing third.