Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PC leader's proposal puts him in spotlight

He's been off the stage since taking top party post

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Just when it appeared the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party had settled in for a long winter's nap, a sudden sign of life.

On Wednesday, Tory Leader Brian Pallister held a news conference to propose an increase in the basic personal exemption that would, on average, put $200 in the pocket of each working Manitoban. Not revolutionary, but certainly newsworthy.

As a concept, a BPE bump is likely to be warmly received, although it is unclear how a proposal like this will play when the province is in such dire need of eliminating its budget deficit. However, it was still highly unexpected. There is no current debate about taxation, the Manitoba legislature is not in session and the provincial budget is five months away from being tabled. Why this announcement, and why now?

It would be wrong to call this a desperate bid for attention. However, it is a somewhat obvious strategy to get the Tories and their leader back into the headlines just a few days before the party gathers for its annual general meeting. The Tories needed to do something, because under Pallister's leadership, the party has been off the grid.

There was no "convention bounce" because there were no leadership challengers and thus no convention. Since he won the leadership by acclamation in late July, Pallister has been cautious and quiet. He has spent most of his time meeting with party members and focusing on party operations. He put a charge into fundraisers and sent out everyone and anyone connected to the party to sell memberships. It's unclear how well those initiatives are working; to date, Pallister has turned down requests for one-on-one interviews.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising he suffers a profile deficit. According to a Free Press-Probe Research poll, Pallister registered only a 33 per cent approval rating from respondents. That is five points behind the party's overall standing at 38 per cent and well behind Premier Greg Selinger's 50 per cent approval rating.

Of greater concern, about half of all respondents didn't know who he was or needed more information on which to base an opinion. When you add to this the fact Pallister's Tories are running five points behind the NDP provincially, and 20 points behind in Winnipeg, it adds up to a whole lot of grief.

The charitable view of the poll results is they leave lots of room for the Tories to grow. And that three years shy of the next provincial election, there is lots of time to eat into the NDP lead and galvanize Pallister's profile among Manitobans. Yet it is hard to explain why he would want either himself or his party to lag behind the NDP and Selinger any longer than necessary.

What has Pallister been up to? He has been slow to put together his senior staff, and the party remains without a chief executive officer. The lack of public appearances, statements or engagement on breaking stories has been puzzling. Last week, arguably the biggest story in the province was the suspension of a Manitoba physician who traded OxyContin prescriptions for sex with two patients. When Pallister's office was contacted for a comment, the Free Press was told there would be none. It was a complex issue, but Pallister might have benefited from showing Manitobans he was on the job.

Putting aside the sleepy strategy he has employed since taking over the party in July, there is reason for Tories to be hopeful about the announcement they made this week. Issuing opposition policy announcements and forcing the government to respond could pay dividends.

Former Tory leader Stuart Murray used this strategy back in 2000 with some success. Back then, the Tories released an alternative speech from the throne jam-packed with proposals. The ensuing media coverage saw reporters asking NDP cabinet ministers to respond to the Tory proposals. Question period was turned upside down -- instead of asking NDP ministers questions about the government's policies, Tories were asking the NDP about Tory policies.

Is the basic-personal-exemption announcement part of a new strategy to get the jump on the NDP? Perhaps, but it will require more proof in the form of additional announcements. If this was a one-off, it falls more into the category of cheap, attention-getting tactics.

Governing parties need vibrant, creative opposition critics to create good government. It drives voter interest, something desperately needed these days. But it also requires superior political skills and judgment to put your own ideas on the record far in advance of an election, running the risk they will become absorbed and branded as part of the government's agenda.

At this stage, Pallister could either be demonstrating great desperation or great courage. The next few months will prove which is the better description.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2012 A7

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