Political theatrics won’t help Liberals
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“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
— Irish playwright Oscar Wilde
“All publicity is good if it is intelligent.”
— The Atlanta Constitution, 1915
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont’s civil lawsuit against Heather Stefanson has been as much about public political theatre as it was an attempt to hold the Manitoba premier to account for potentially contravening the province’s Conflict of Interest Act.
Last year, Lamont filed a formal complaint in what is now Court of King’s Bench alleging that the premier violated conflict of interest rules when she failed to disclose selling property for millions of dollars.
His action followed a news report that Stefanson breached the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act by not declaring the disposal of three properties that were sold for $31 million in 2016 and 2019. All MLAs are required to file statements with the clerk of the legislative assembly within 15 days of the start of a new session listing potential conflicts from assets they or their spouses own.
Lamont’s legal move has been playing out in court this week, with Stefanson’s lawyer arguing that his client’s failure to disclose the sale of real estate was inadvertent, and not deliberate. Lamont’s lawyer has been calling for the court to impose a 90-day suspension from the legislature if the court decides she violated conflict of interest rules, and a $5,000 fine.
Until now, there was no other remedy available to opposition members to hold a sitting premier to account. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported last year, it will only be after the next general election when new legislation — The Conflict of Interest (Members and Ministers) Act — goes into effect that recourse can be sought through the newly renamed conflict of interest commissioner rather than going to court in this manner.
Yet the fact that an MLA and party leader has taken court action to follow through with such an allegation is unique in this province. Whether Lamont wins or loses, his complaint has certainly had its desired effect.
Lamont’s name has remained on voters’ minds with the continued reporting of the court case, serving to batter the premier over potential ethical concerns every time the story hits the headlines. That continued embarrassment of the Tories — and Stefanson herself — is exactly what the Liberals were hoping for by instigating this Hail Mary.
But if the Liberals are hoping to translate this political circus into votes at the ballot box come the fall, this is not likely a winning strategy. As of Feb. 3, the latest popular vote projections by the aggregate polling website 338Canada.com suggest the Liberal Party of Manitoba remains a distant third-place option, carrying maybe 14 per cent of decided voters — well behind the NDP at 42 per cent and the PCs at 38 per cent. If an election were held now, this would give them possibly three seats — the same three seats they currently hold.
None of this is an improvement upon the last two provincial elections in 2016 or 2019, where they picked up 14.46 per cent and 14.48 per cent of the vote, respectively. In fact, the Liberals haven’t been above 14 per cent since Paul Edwards led the party in the 1995 election.
While a lot can happen between now and election day, it’s no secret that the Progressive Conservatives are highly vulnerable. And while the NDP are leading in the polls, they remain unpopular outside of the Perimeter Highway, save for a few seats that are potentially in play here in Brandon.
We know that provincial elections will not be won or lost in Brandon and rural Manitoba — the real battleground is Fortress Winnipeg. But the Liberal brain trust neglects western Manitoba at its own peril. We can count on one hand the number of times any of the Liberal MLAs have made it out to Brandon to fly the political flag since the last election.
That obvious neglect is truly a missed opportunity to rebuild the party, one that will translate into a very poor ground game come election day.
And no amount of political theatre — no matter how many headlines such grandstanding captures — will make up for an inability to get out the vote when it counts.
» Matt Goerzen, editor