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Pallister's willingness to offer opinion on wages is telling

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In his first official day as the elected leader of the official Opposition, Tory chief Brian Pallister was presented with a prime opportunity to score cheap political points with an issue that almost always plays well with voters: MLA salaries.

Wednesday, the day after Pallister won the Fort Whyte byelection, was the same day Michael Werier, the province's independent commissioner of MLA salaries, allowances and retirements, delivered a report calling for a 4.6 per cent bump to MLA pay in 2014. Werier's recommendations are binding on the government.

Pallister, who appeared Wednesday with most of his Tory caucus to face reporters, could have jumped on the report and made some hay with it. He could have rejected its recommendations and called upon the NDP government to demonstrate restraint in the face of a still-struggling, deficit-ridden treasury by keeping MLA pay frozen. He could have fed that irrational, misinformed segment of the electorate who believe government is responsible for everything that is wrong in their lives and politicians, the idiots, should be working for bread and water.

But he didn't take that bait.

As a former MLA and federal member of Parliament, Pallister said the process of asking an independent, third party to determine the level of pay for politicians is much better than politicians deciding for themselves. As such, he wholeheartedly supports the recommendations. You could see many smiling faces and nodding heads among the Tory MLAs stacked behind him.

Notwithstanding his newsworthy response, the fact he even answered the question could be the real story here. Unopposed in pursuit of the Tory leadership, and facing only modest challenge in the byelection, Pallister has been pretty quiet in these early days of his second go at provincial politics. He has discouraged those who would like to see a Tory policy platform, opting instead for more low-level consultation. So, for him to answer a direct question on a pressing political issue, well, that's downright surprising.

That's not to say there was much more to offer reporters and the citizens they inform. Efforts were made to press him into describing how he will lead and what kind of party will follow him. As has been the case since he was acclaimed as leader, that dog still won't hunt. As a result, we still don't really know where the official Opposition is headed. Those, including the author, who thought Wednesday morning was going to be the big reveal, were left disappointed.

In Tory circles, the prevailing wisdom is Pallister has only two real options: go modestly but solidly right of centre; or swing way, way right of centre. It's not hard to see why many Tories would think that way. Federally, Canada is being led by perhaps the most conservative government in the postwar period. South of the border, we watch with interest as Democrats, who have adopted many conservative principles over Barack Obama's first four years in office, battle Republicans, who have just unveiled a right-wing agenda of Paleolithic proportions. In this context, many believe the question is not whether Pallister will go right, but how far?

And yet, he certainly showed he's no knee-jerk populist when he supported the recommendation for a 2014 pay raise for MLAs. That isn't enough to accurately predict Pallister's place in the political spectrum, but it's a start.

And there were a few other tidbits. Pallister was asked if he believes he is leading a true, small-c conservative party. He was also asked how conservatism has changed since he last occupied a seat in a legislature. Pallister deferred answering, naturally, although he did offer this observation. "Political parties, by their nature, are less defined now by their names than they are by their stances on issues."

Pallister is correct, of course, although the wisdom of his statement may have been lost on those reporters who were just trying in vain to get him to reveal some of those stances.

Pallister keeps hammering away at a handful of key political terms: inclusive; volunteerism; hard-working. Those are mere platitudes without some game-breaking ideas to back them up. On that subject, Pallister promised he will not just criticize the government, but also provide Manitobans with alternatives to government policies. We wait with bated breath.

The possibilities are endless right now for Pallister, even if the policy statements to date are not.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2012 A4

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