There has never been a blue wave in Manitoba politics quite like this one.
After nearly 17 years on the sidelines, the Progressive Conservatives have returned to power with a knockout blow that left a trail of defeated New Democrat cabinet ministers and forced leader Greg Selinger to throw in the towel.
At the same time, the Tories avoided a repeat of the Sharon Carstairs success in 1988 as the Liberal party was left licking its wounds and leader Rana Bokhari unsure of her political future.
"I’m tremendously humbled by what has happened here," Tory Leader Brian Pallister told a jubilant crowd at the party’s celebrations Tuesday night.
The man who will be the province’s 22nd premier said he wants to turn Manitoba into a ‘have’ province.
"Manitoba is not a have-not province," he said. "It’s a have province waiting to happen."
The scale of the victory the 61-year-old Tory led his party to is unheard of in Manitoba politics. Not only is it the largest seat count ever but possibly the highest share of the popular vote ever.
"What a great night!" he said at the PC headquarters, surrounded by many candidates and his wife, Esther, and their daughters Shawn and Quinn.
The PCs won 40 seats, the most since the legislature expanded to 57 seats in 1949.
Tory headquarters was rocking with excitement as the results rolled in. Whoops went up as NDP seats such as Kirkfield Park, Assiniboia and St. Norbert went Tory blue.
The PCs not only won back much of their traditional turf in south and west Winnipeg, but in bedrock NDP seats such as Transcona.
The Tories took every seat in southern Manitoba outside of Winnipeg and even made inroads in the north, knocking off longtime NDP heavyweight Steve Ashton, who would’ve been seen as rock-solid when the campaign started five weeks ago.
In sharp contrast to the jubilation surrounding Pallister was the growing despair surrounding what remained of the once-powerful NDP government.
Selinger told the crowd of NDP supporters he had offered his resignation to party president Ovide Mercredi and took full responsibility for their defeat.
"I am completely accepting of the decision tonight by the people of Manitoba," Selinger told reporters. "If there is one thing you got to believe in when you’re in politics, you have to believe in democracy."
Selinger, who won his St. Boniface seat, said the party executive will take steps to name an interim leader shortly.
The bottom line from the ballot box had several NDP cabinet ministers losing their seats, including Health Minister Sharon Blady in Kirkfield Park and Finance Minister Greg Dewar in Selkirk. In total, at least 10 cabinet ministers were set to lose their seats.
"It is a tremendous loss, and I do hope some of those folks are staying involved in the community and are making their way back into political life," Selinger said. "It just kills me to see people that have worked their hearts out for the people of Manitoba and constituents to lose their seat."
However, fresh faces such as indigenous candidates Wab Kinew in Fort Rouge and Nahanni Fontaine in St. Johns were elected, bringing in a sense of renewal for the party.
Bokhari finished a distant third in her Fort Rouge riding — won by Kinew — but the party appears to have won three seats: veteran Jon Gerrard in River Heights, Cindy Lamoureux in Burrows, and in a huge upset, Judy Klassen in Kewatinook. She was on track to beat cabinet minister Eric Robinson.
Bokhari held only a brief scrum with reporters, in which she refused to discuss her leadership future.
"It’s not a conversation I want to have today," Bokhari said, before staff whisked her away.
The Liberals almost doubled their popular vote. It was their best public support in decades, Bokhari pointed out.
She praised her "fantastic candidates" but added "it was a tough game. We’re running with zero dollars. Resources are always a challenge."
Pallister paid tribute to Selinger, saying he had "great respect" for him for withstanding a challenge to his leadership last year.
Pallister told reporters afterwards that he plans to be at work early Wednesday to begin the process of forming government.
"There will be a lot of transitional work that will have to get done very quickly. But I’m excited to have that challenge. It’s a project I have dreamed of and now I have the chance to undertake it," he said.
He did not indicate when he would name a cabinet, but said he will announce a timetable soon. He confirmed that he would call a spring session of the legislature.
Asked if there would be gender parity in his cabinet, Pallister said that was not possible yet since there were only two PC female caucus members returning from the last legislature.
"I don’t think it would be fair to put people who are brand new too rapidly into extremely demanding roles in cabinet," Pallister said.
He said the Tory victory was not just a repudiation of the NDP but a nod to the fact that the Progressive Conservatives offered Manitobans a good alternative.
"We have run a very principled, very real campaign…We didn’t try to buy votes."
The cabinet: Picking the inner circle
Brian Pallister has promised a cabinet of about 12 members — which would be one-third smaller than Greg Selinger’s inner circle. Competition for the prize positions will be keen, and current caucus members will be favoured to take up the bulk of the spots — at least at first. Here are the ones to watch:
❚ Kelvin Goertzen (Steinbach) has served as Pallister’s justice critic and house leader. The 46-year-old lawyer, first elected in 2003, is one of the best debaters in the house and a shoo-in for cabinet, possibly as attorney general.
❚ Heather Stefanson (Tuxedo), 45, is Pallister’s deputy leader and was a frequent party spokeswoman during the campaign. Expect her to play a significant role in cabinet.
❚ Myrna Driedger (Charleswood), was first elected in a 1998 byelection and has been the party’s health critic under two leaders, including Pallister. She is a favourite for the health portfolio.
❚ Cameron Friesen (Morden-Winkler) has been on Pallister’s front bench as the finance critic. He has also served as critic for education and health. He was first elected in 2011.
❚ Reg Helwer (Brandon West) will be the senior government MLA from Manitoba’s second-largest city and a likely cabinet candidate. He has a strong business background and chaired the legislature’s public accounts committee. He has a master’s degree in agricultural economics.
❚ Ian Wishart (Portage la Prairie) has been an effective family services critic. First elected in 2011, he’s also a former president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
❚ Shannon Martin (Morris) was Pallister’s conservation and water stewardship critic. First elected in a January 2014 byelection, he was once the director of public affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
❚ Blaine Pedersen (Midland) is a farmer who was first elected in 2007. He’s been the party’s agriculture, food and rural development critic and a thorn in the government’s side over its choice of a route for the Bipole III hydro transmission line and the effects on farmers.
Expect Pallister to appoint at least a couple of rookie MLAs to cabinet, especially women, to create more gender balance.