By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservatives went early and won big.
Pallister called an election more than a year before it was scheduled and the vote Tuesday ended with a second consecutive majority government for the Tories.
The party was projected to capture 30-plus seats in the 57-seat legislature with an agenda to continue cutting costs, streamlining health care and reducing taxes.
Pallister, who recaptured his Winnipeg seat of Fort Whyte, told supporters that voters opted to move forward.
“Forward to balanced budgets. Forward to better care, and sooner. Forward to new schools for our children and grandchildren. Forward to a stronger economy for all of us. And forward to more affordability for families, with lower taxes,” he said.
The Tories failed to match their 40-seat high in 2016, the biggest majority in a century in Manitoba, which ended 17 years of NDP government.
The focus of the four-week campaign was on health care and money.
Pallister reduced the provincial sales tax by one point to seven per cent and fulfilled an election promise to reduce annual deficits, but his fiscal restraint has stirred up controversy.
Subsidies for everything from public housing to sleep apnea machines to physiotherapy have been cut. Three hospital emergency departments in Winnipeg have been downgraded and no longer handle life-threatening cases.
The New Democrats had promised to reverse some of the changes.
Pallister told reporters after his speech that the Tories winning fewer seats this time means the government has to “listen better.”
He said the changes made in health care are beginning to work. “But it’s not easy on everyone, and I understand that, and I think we need to improve in terms of strategies … communicating with front-line workers what is going on, why it’s going on and how it’ll work.”
The vote was the day before an expected federal election call by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Pallister said he agrees with some policies from both the federal Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, but he is on the side of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer when it comes to fighting the federal carbon tax.
“We certainly agree more with Mr. Scheer than we do with Mr. Trudeau on that one.”
The New Democrats were on track to add a handful of seats to the 14 won in 2016 and remain as the Official Opposition. They also improved their share of the vote. Leader Wab Kinew won his seat in Fort Rouge.
“I’m feeling pretty good tonight,” Kinew told supporters after telephoning Pallister to concede the election.
Kinew said the extra seats are a message of support and a shot across Pallister’s bow.
“The seats that we took back made it very clear that Manitobans want us, the New Democrats, to not only be the conscience of Manitoba, not only to be the opposition of Manitoba, but to be the progressive voice for Manitoba,” he said.
Kinew ran on a promise of more money for health, education, infrastructure and social programs, and accused the PCs of implementing health changes that have made the system more chaotic.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont won in his Winnipeg constituency of St. Boniface, but his party was struggling to retain the four seats it had at dissolution.
Four is the minimum number needed for official party status, which carries with it extra funding for caucus staff, committee spaces and time in question period.
Lamont, speaking to supporters, said he was proud of his team running a positive campaign that pushed critical issues to the forefront. But he said politics is ultimately an unforgiving “blood sport.”
“You can put everything you have into something. You can deliver the best work of your life, and sometimes it’s still not enough. And that’s life. And that’s politics,” he said.
Both Lamont and Kinew will face mandatory party leadership reviews.
The Green Party of Manitoba was shut out once again in its bid for its first seat. Party leader James Beddome ran and lost against Kinew in Fort Rouge — his fifth attempt at a seat.
All but one of Pallister’s cabinet ministers at dissolution were re-elected, including Finance Minister Scott Fielding, Health Minister Cameron Friesen and Justice Minister Cliff Cullen.
The election broke new ground for diversity, with the first two black members elected to the legislature.
Uzoma Asagwara, an addictions specialist and former member of Canada’s national women’s baseball team, won for the NDP.
Audrey Gordon, a small business owner who lost in the 2016 election, won a seat for the Tories.