Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unveiling of Pallister's vision may take a while

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For those who struggle with delayed gratification, the end is almost near.

On Tuesday, voters in the provincial riding of Fort Whyte will go to the polls in a byelection to select a new MLA. With no disrespect to the Liberals, Greens and NDP, it is widely expected that on that day, the newly acclaimed leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, Brian Pallister, will be elected to the Manitoba legislature.

Pallister will benefit in a number of ways from getting past the byelection. First and foremost, he will be front and centre in the legislative chamber when it reconvenes this fall. Leading a party from outside the legislature is no way to, well, lead a party. And there are benefits as well for voters. With electoral validation, we may finally get to see what Pallister is all about.

Nearly five months after he returned to Manitoba politics by launching a campaign to lead the Tories and more than a month after being acclaimed to the job, voters in this province know almost nothing about Pallister or the party he wants to lead. Will he give in to the rural membership and take the party right, or look for some bold new ideas in the centre that will make the party more palatable to Winnipeg voters? The public doesn't know and there is no timetable for him to reveal the path he wants to take.

The absence of a leadership campaign that would have required Pallister to plant a policy flag or two is certainly part of the problem. A decidedly low-profile byelection campaign, which focused almost exclusively on door-to-door canvassing and smaller meetings, only contributed to the lack of information.

Pallister has uttered a comment or two while in electoral limbo. He urged the federal government to pass a bill that would extend property rights to women on reserves, an issue he holds dear from his days as a member of Parliament. He also chided the province for backing down from a proposal to tax insurance policies and asked that Hydro rates be frozen until more is known about the true need for all of the new generating stations the NDP is building.

All in all, it's not enough fodder on which to form an opinion.

Tories will, no doubt, point out that in the long term, they have more than three years to define their party under Pallister. And they will, no doubt, complain the timing of the byelection has prevented their new leader from defining himself better in the short term.

Initially, Pallister anticipated a summer of travelling the province, meeting with the rank and file. Unfortunately for Pallister, Premier Greg Selinger decided to call the byelection sooner rather than later. On Aug. 3, Selinger called a byelection for Sept. 4. It was not a surprise, per se. But it was an inconvenience.

Pallister reacted with robust crankiness, questioning Selinger's intent in calling the byelection for the first day after the Labour Day long weekend. In Toryland, Selinger was clearly looking for an advantage of some sort by forcing the Tories to campaign during a month when voters traditionally are at the lake or gearing up for a new school year. Although it's obvious Pallister and the Tories were upset, it was perhaps not a good idea to have the new leader enunciate those sentiments. Tories are not more likely than NDP supporters to own cottages; there is no advantage for any one party. Pallister should have welcomed the battle and moved on.

With doors to knock on in Fort Whyte, Pallister has attempted to do the best he can to reach out to key members with a widely circulated survey asking where they would like to see the party go and what they expect from their new leader. And there are strong rumours circulating among Tories Pallister has already planned a significant announcement for the Wednesday after the byelection.

An email to Pallister's campaign failed, not surprisingly, to produce any details on those developments. His spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the survey or the possibility of a big announcement post-vote.

Why all the secrecy? Perhaps Pallister doesn't want to jinx his chances on Tuesday. Although it would take a miracle to unseat the Tories in Fort Whyte, there is a reason they still hold elections in supposedly safe seats.

Or, the secrecy could be an indication of things to come. Borrowing heavily from the pages of the federal Conservative playbook, where campaigns appear to be the last place where big ideas get unveiled, Pallister could be planning to keep his cards close to his vest for a while yet.

For those who struggle with delayed gratification, that can mean only one thing: more misery in the short term.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2012 B1

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