As former health minister Heather Stefanson officially throws her hat in the ring to lead Manitoba’s struggling Progressive Conservative Party, one expert sees a familiar pattern emerging.
When a political party looks to rebrand itself after scandal or corruption — or in this case, a leader becomes unpopular — party members often start thinking about having “a different kind of leader,” says Kelly Saunders, an associate professor of political science at Brandon University in Manitoba.
“That usually tends to or lends itself to thinking about having a woman leader, just because women in positions of leadership is still quite a rare commodity in this country, unfortunately,” Saunders said.
“It seems to be in times when parties are really struggling [or] looking for a saviour … they tend to look at women as potential leaders.”
Premier Brian Pallister announced earlier this month that he is stepping down from the party leadership.
That news followed mounting criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, Pallister’s widely condemned statements about the good intentions of Canada’s early settlers.
When Stefanson announced her leadership bid, she was flanked by more than a dozen of her colleagues — just some of the 24 PC caucus members who support her campaign.
Electing a woman to lead the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party might be a way to win back certain parts of the province, said Mary Agnes Welch, a partner at Probe Research.
“I think among some quarters, there is a feeling that one way to help the party win back women voters, especially in Winnipeg, who are pivotal … is to have a woman leader,” said Welch, whose firm’s polls have suggested tanking popularity for the PC party in recent months.
Headway or Hail Mary?
In some ways, the push for a woman to head up the party is a good thing, Saunders said. More diverse leadership can lead to better policy, and increased representation can inspire more women to step into politics.
But things get dicey when a desperate party taps a woman to lead as a “Hail Mary pass,” she said, where the expectations are too high for any one person to meet, and where the party and its leader are effectively set up to fail.
In a phenomenon known as the glass cliff, women are more likely than men to be promoted to leadership roles during periods of crisis, when the chance of failure is highest.
“And then that woman, and women in general, tend to be painted with the same brush,” Saunders said.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Well, what do you expect, right? Women don’t belong in politics.'”
Meghan Chorney, chair of Equal Voice Manitoba — the local chapter of a national organization that seeks to improve gender diversity in politics — said she’s glad to see several women floating the idea of running to lead the party.
But she wishes women had opportunities to lead more often, “not only when things are crashing down, but before that happens.”
“Women in society are often brought in to fix things and clean up messes, and some messes can’t be cleaned,” Chorney said.
Both Saunders and Welch agree: the next Progressive Conservative leader, regardless of gender, faces an unusually tough job in digging the party out from under Pallister’s legacy.
And if it’s a woman who takes on that task, she’ll carry the added burden of being the party’s first non-interim female leader and Manitoba’s first woman premier, Chorney said.
(After the Tories lost power in 1999, Bonnie Mitchelson became the first woman to lead the party. She served as interim leader for six months.)
“If we end up with the first woman premier of Manitoba, there’ll be a very large spotlight, because firsts are tough,” Chorney said.
“You’re forging your own way and you’re doing what you can.”
Saunders said she hopes the Progressive Conservatives supporting Stefanson’s leadership bid continue to stand behind the Tuxedo MLA and give her the resources she needs to succeed if she’s elected leader.
“I hope that this works out for the best because it will only encourage more women to step into the ring,” she said.
“The record up till now has been pretty mixed at really allowing women the opportunity to really succeed and thrive in leadership positions in this country.”
In Welch’s view, there’s still plenty of time for a new party leader to turn things around — whomever that may be.
“If any woman wins the leadership — there’s a couple others out there that may run — they still have two years as premier to become a legitimate premier, not just sort of an interim caretaker premier,” she said.
For Stefanson, it comes down to one thing.
“I have been elected for 20 years and I believe that I have the experience that can move us forward,” she told reporters following her announcement.
“I think personally I’m the best person for the job.”