Manitoba PCs ready to fight NDP’s agenda as election nears, premier says during AGM

Progressive Conservative leader Heather Stefanson warned supporters at the party’s annual general meeting on Saturday that the “Wab way” would be an NDP government which would hike Manitoba’s provincial sales tax — a claim she did not back up with evidence.

With the next provincial election looming in October, Stefanson launched a blistering attack of the Wab Kinew-led NDP at the PC annual general meeting at Winnipeg’s RBC Convention Centre on Saturday.

During the premier’s address, Stefanson alleged the NDP would be soft on crime and legalize illicit drugs if elected in the fall, but did not offer any proof. She also claimed to hear the NDP is looking to hike the provincial sales tax (PST) to 10 per cent.

“Can you believe that? Could you imagine what will happen to our province if that goes through?” Stefanson told more than 200 delegates.

When asked to provide evidence while speaking with reporters, Stefanson didn’t offer an answer, but said the last NDP government raised the PST, from seven to eight per cent, despite previously saying it wouldn’t.

“We’ve seen them do it before and I guarantee they’ll do it again.”

Stefanson lying to PC donors: NDP

The PCs “will say anything to trick Manitobans,” the NDP said in response.

“Every time Heather Stefanson gets in front of PC donors, she lies. First, it was that she has never cut health-care, now this. Manitobans don’t believe her,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Public anger over the PST hike contributed to the NDP’s electoral defeat in 2016. The Tories returned the provincial sales tax to seven per cent when they were elected. 

Stefanson’s address signalled what looks to be a feisty election campaign as the governing Progressive Conservatives try to win back support. Opinion polls suggest the NDP has been in the lead for two years, but the gap is shrinking, according to the latest Probe Research poll. 

The premier was on the attack throughout her address, warning of “dire prospects” if Manitoba elects the NDP this fall.

Stefanson accused Kinew of supporting decisions of the federal Liberal/NDP coalition such as the carbon tax and a bail system that she says has become too lenient.

The premier also alleged the NDP would defund the police, something the party has denied.

In recent months, the Tories have taken a more aggressive stance in their messaging. The party unveiled its campaign slogan this weekend, which is “Fighting for Manitobans.”

“Now more than ever, Manitobans need our Progressive Conservative team to fight for them,” Stefanson told delegates.

“We need to fight to prevent NDP tax hikes. We need to fight their soft on crime agenda. We need to fight to continue to create more jobs, attract investment and keep Manitoba on the right track.”

Stefanson said a thriving and growing economy will improve the healthcare system and the cost of living in Manitoba, claiming Kinew doesn’t understand that.

A woman answers questions from the media, on a red carpet and beside signage barring the Progressive Conservatives' new slogan, 'Fighting for Manitobans.'
Heather Stefanson speaks with members of the media beside new advertising materials barring the Progressive Conservatives’ new slogan, ‘Fighting for Manitobans.’ (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“His way, just like Greg Selinger’s way, the NDP way, is to raise your taxes and stifle economic growth. Well, let’s call that the Wab way. We think that’s the wrong way.”

She wouldn’t say if the “Wab way” phrasing would become a future party tagline. “You might” see that, she told reporters. 

More liquor sales, online gambling

Members supported a number of policy resolutions on Saturday, though the party is not required to act on them.

The PC’s grassroots asked the party to expand liquor sales to private retailers, open the online sports gambling market to more regulated operators and expand the Downtown Community Safety Partnership — a street patrol in downtown Winnipeg — to other communities.

Members also want the federal government to stop pushing for the expansion of the medically assisted death (MAID) law to cover those suffering solely from a mental illness.

MLA Andrew Micklefield, who spoke in favour of the resolution, called extending MAID to this group of people “sick, dystopian recommendations that provoke a death culture in Canada.”

In a session closed to media Saturday, the PCs presented supporters with a report outlining possible changes to the rules for leadership elections. 

When Stefanson became leader in 2021, there was a late surge in party membership and many people complained they did not receive mail-in ballots in time to vote.

Stefanson’s opponent, Shelly Glover, alleged there were voting irregularities and challenged the results in court. A judge rejected her claims.

Delegates at the Progressive Conservative convention stand up and clap.
Delegates applaud after Progressive Conservative leader Heather Stefanson’s keynote address. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Speaking to reporters afterward, party president Brent Pooles offered few details.

“I think that at the end of the day, we just want to make sure that every single [one] of our 28,000 members feel that their voice has been heard and they’re given the opportunity to vote when the time comes,” Pooles said.

When pressed on specifics, Pooles said the rule that allows people to buy memberships as late as 30 days before the leadership vote “might be part” of the changes. The party was hard-pressed in 2021 to process thousands of new members and have mail-in ballots sent out and returned within a month.

Stefanson ‘won’t back down’

Pooles would not say whether the party is looking at moving away from its current system of allowing every member to vote. Some other parties use a delegate system, in which party members send a smaller number of delegates from each constituency to represent them and vote for a leader.

A party committee will take the proposed changes, which include multiple options on some items, to party members in the coming months and develop a more firm set of recommendations, Pooles said.

Later, a sold-out fundraising dinner hosted by the PCs drew 1,300 attendees on Saturday night, which Stefanson entered to applause and the Tom Petty song, “I Won’t Back Down.”

The premier, who has often portrayed herself as a conciliatory leader, acknowledged during a fireside chat in front of dinner guests that she “won’t do that at all costs” and “won’t back down.”

“If we’re not getting what we need for Manitobans, damn right I will stand up and fight for Manitobans.”