First female premier faces uphill battle

·5 min read

The Progressive Conservative leadership race yielded surprising results, said Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders, given how close the final tallies were for each candidate.

Heather Stefanson received 8,405 votes, defeating rival Shelly Glover, who garnered 8,042 votes.

The Tuxedo MLA, a former cabinet minister and deputy premier, was selected to lead the PCs by party members in a mail-in vote.

As of Sunday night, Glover had not conceded the leadership race and may yet challenge the result.

“There were a number of quite troubling allegations just about the fairness of the process,” Saunders said. “Certainly, the closeness of the votes might have lent some credence to some of those concerns.”

Saunders said a close majority does lend credence to concerns regarding ballots not being sent out to members in advance of the vote, ballots being missing or ballots being received too late to mail back in time for Saturday’s vote. She added she has also heard concerns regional voter drop boxes scattered across the province did not exist or required people to drive many kilometres to visit.

Given the seriousness of these allegations and concerns, she said, it is understandable Glover has not yet conceded the leadership race.

The controversy surrounding the leadership race colours the naming of the province’s first woman premier, she said, because the outcome needs to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of party members and the eyes of Manitobans.

“This is more than just the new leader of a party, obviously — this is a vote for our new premier,” Saunders said. “In order for that outcome to be seen as legitimate the process has to be seen as legitimate — if the process is seen as questionable or dubious in some aspects, then there is going to be some question marks hanging over the premier-elect Stefanson’s head, and that is unfortunate because this is such a historic moment.”

Having the first female premier is a cause for celebration in terms of gender equity, equality and seeing more diverse faces in politics, she said, making the occasion an important one for the province. Unfortunately, these important milestones and markers will likely be overshadowed by the questions of legitimacy.

Saunders added Stefanson’s first days as premier will be further complicated because she remains the leader of the same caucus and cabinet that remained silent during former premier Brian Pallister’s decisions regarding the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his “disturbing” comments regarding Indigenous issues including residential schools and Reconciliation.

“These are the same people that threw the support behind Stefanson in a very public way,” Saunders said.

She is now leading a party that in the view of many Manitobans is still a continuation of Pallister’s cabinet and caucus. Stefanson will need to try to separate herself, the cabinet and caucus from his legacy — a challenging task to overcome.

She added these necessities will be further fuelled because of the ideological and urban-rural divide facing the PCs, which has been exacerbated by the leadership race.

Glover had significant support from those in the party who are right of centre and/or rural and the divisions have been intensified by the closeness of the race.

Stefanson will now need to bring the party on her side to support her leadership.

“She has a number of really key challenges ahead of her, and it’s not going to be an easy path forward,” Saunders said.

Social scientists often talk about the “glass cliff” when they look at women in leadership positions, whether it is in politics or other sectors. The idea is centred on a political party, government or any organization that is suffering in the polls or potentially recovering from a crisis trying to shake things up by bringing in a woman to rebrand.

However, that woman is often given a herculean task to rebuild a suffering organization or is not provided with the resources or tools needed to create systemic change.

“She’s almost set up to fail, and then when she does she’s pushed over the edge of the cliff and everyone says, ‘well, that’s what happens when you put a woman in charge — she’s doomed to fail,’” Saunders said. “It really does cast a pall over other women wanting to follow in those footsteps and really breaking through that glass ceiling because they’re not given the same equal opportunities to succeed when they’re in those positions as leadership.”

She hopes Stefanson will be allowed to prove herself as a successful and capable leader, but going into the role with the questions surrounding her path to victory is a troubling way to begin a new premiership.

It remains an exciting time for the province because there are two years before the next election — a long stretch in political time.

The PC Party is beginning to rebound, rising about six points in popular support across the province based on polls, Saunders said, although they are still significantly behind the NDP.

The party is in a good position with 20,000 new members brought in as a result of the leadership vote. Saunders said if they can hold onto these people in terms of volunteers and fundraising, it puts the party in a better position heading into the next election.

She noted as an urbanite and woman leader Stefanson might be able to close the PC gap with urban and woman voters over the next two years.

“There’s always a honeymoon period when a new leader is elected,” Saunders said. “If they’re able to see a bump in the polls as a result of a new shiny face on the party and a different face on the party in the form of a woman and they can hold to that or at least use that momentum to lead them into the next election, the party is in a better position certainly more than it was six months ago.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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