Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gary Doer, ever the outlier

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At the end of a press conference at the legislature last year, Premier Gary Doer started talking about a mid-continental energy grid. It drove off the last of the gathered scribes.The mid-continental energy grid is not fascinating stuff, or at least it isn't if you don't have command of the facts. I know very little about the grid, but I knew enough that I knew it could be fascinating.

I once attended a Manitoba Hydro briefing on our interconnections with utilities south of the border in the northern states. Colour-coded maps, charts and graphs were projected onto a big screen as the lecture proceeded. We were told in great detail how electricity was shifted from here to there, when it was most and least profitable to do it, how all of the players were constantly ramping up or down output in conjunction with base loads and how it would all get a lot more complicated as fickle wind power generation expanded.

And let's not forget, all of this happens at the speed of light.

I think I understood it for as long as I was in the cocoon created by the glow of the big screen, but today all I remember is having been there.

I also remember how the electricity geeks who had mastered the complexity of it all saw past the detail and played with the ideas as if it were all as straight forward as the first level in a game of Pong.

Listening to Doer that day at the legislature, it struck me that he, too, had mastered the complexity of the grid and for that reason could never retire.

But I get ahead of myself.

I don't presume to speak for Doer or pretend to know him well, but beginning in Grade 9, this is what I have observed.

He was in Grade 10 at St. Paul's when I was in Grade 9. I never spoke to him, but I never forgot him either. There was something charismatic about him even then. He was the tall guy who was always surrounded by other young men, low key but clearly the leader, and it was effortless.

Then there he was years later, head of the Manitoba Government Employees Association, a union with thousands of members. He had been a youth centre worker, got into union politics, mastered the game and was now running the show.

If you have read Outliers, then you know that Malcolm Gladwell's thesis is that success is largely a combination of sufficient talent, great opportunity and long practice.

So while I was studying politics at university, Gary Doer was studying politics in the real world and seeing it from the ground up, from the point at which government touches the people.

I suspect you can learn more about the budget process, the politics of the moment and the electoral needs of parties from across a bargaining table than from a back bench or a carrel in a library.

When he was first elected, then, he knew how the game was played on the ground, not how it looked from the bleachers.

Then came his 10 long years in opposition, starting as leader of the third party. That's a lot of time to practise. Gladwell says the magic number for success is 10,000 hours of practice. Doer likely logged three times that amount during the long vigil, but patience had its reward in 1999 when he was elected premier armed with a vast knowledge of the civil service and opposition politics.

Over the past 10 years, Doer has used those outlier lessons while adding to them, mastering one skill after another, one issue after another, one crisis after another.

His world has opened in ways through policy, travel and access to elites that few of us can imagine.

That was why that day at the press conference when he was talking so expertly about the mid-continental grid (and as he does about everything from crop rotations to NHL financing) that I concluded that he could never resign.

I mean, what could he possibly do that would so regularly throw up challenges and issues and ideas to solve or master?

Well, Mr. Doer proved me wrong Thursday when he announced he would resign in the fall for all the right reasons. He listed a litany of accomplishments that affect Manitobans in real ways, and from the ground up.

He never did lose his common touch, or his common sense.

Thank you, Premier Gary Doer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2009 A12

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