Appointment may signal return of campaign-style Pallister

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There are no doubt tears of relief flowing in Progressive Conservative circles today at the news David McLaughlin is coming to work full-time for Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/05/2020 (935 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are no doubt tears of relief flowing in Progressive Conservative circles today at the news David McLaughlin is coming to work full-time for Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

Over the past four years, McLaughlin has earned kudos from Tories for running two successful provincial election campaigns. He has also served as a consultant, most notably as the architect of Pallister’s off-again, on-again carbon tax.

Pallister accused of 'corruption, politicization' after giving ally top civil service job

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES David Mclaughlin, at the party for Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative Party after winning the 2016 provincial election.

Posted:

Manitoba's new top civil servant quarterbacked Brian Pallister's successful re-election campaign only eight months ago, but he has not worked for the Progressive Conservatives since that time, the party says.

On Thursday, the premier announced that David McLaughlin would replace Fred Meier as clerk of the executive council, effective Wednesday, May 20.

McLaughlin brings more than three decades of political and government experience to the job, having held senior positions in Ottawa and in his home province of New Brunswick, where he served as deputy minister to PC premier Bernard Lord.

At the federal level, he served as chief of staff briefly to former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and to former Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty during Stephen Harper's administration.

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Now, the man who once served as chief of staff to Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney takes on several lofty roles in Manitoba: clerk of the executive council, secretary to cabinet, and deputy minister of the Climate and Green Plan Implementation Office.

McLaughlin is now not only the most important adviser to the premier and cabinet, but also serves as the titular head of the provincial civil service.

The premier still has a chief of staff (Jonathan Scarth), a communications director (Deb Young), and is known to be particularly fond of Paul Beauregard, secretary to the Treasury Board. However, Tory sources confirm none carries as much sway with the premier who almost always does things his way.

The conventional Tory wisdom about McLaughlin: he is at the top of an exceedingly short list of people who have the gravitas and willingness to speak plainly to the Manitoba premier. That is no small accomplishment, given Pallister has generally suggested to his senior staff they are to be seen but rarely heard.

For those not been keeping score at home, Pallister has reached a point where he desperately needs some independent guidance.

The last month has been an exercise in political harakiri: outrageous claims, tortured logic, and an almost complete absence of political nuance or tact has provided a daily reminder of the premier’s political tone-deafness.

One day, he is announcing extraordinary austerity measures that will put potentially thousands of civil servants out of work; the next day, he is spending precious tax dollars on a universal benefit for senior citizens.

He trumpets support programs for Manitobans that are so tied up in eligibility requirements they will reach very few people. All the while, Pallister continues to make wild claims about the performance of his government and the economy that are empirically untrue.

The worst part: every time he repeats one of these hyperbolic claims, he seems unaware the gross majority of Manitobans have figured out he’s blowing smoke.

Can McLaughlin change the tone and direction of the premier’s confounding pandemic response?

Perhaps, but even he has been stung by Pallister’s propensity to ignore solid, practical advice.

For example: the green plan.

Pallister spent much of the first two years in government talking about how he would deliver a “made-in-Manitoba” policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would free the province from the shackles of the federal carbon tax. In the fall of 2017, with McLaughlin at his side, Pallister released a plan that included, at its core, a $25 per tonne carbon tax. It was a clever plan, both politically and environmentally.

However, it came undone in the fall of 2018, following a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Winnipeg.

At a news conference, Trudeau jokingly asked whether Pallister would lobby anti-carbon tax premiers such as Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford to get with the program. A month later, Pallister announced he was withdrawing his carbon tax plan — because Ottawa was not showing Manitoba enough “respect” for efforts to draft its own climate change measures.

Tory sources said McLaughlin was incensed. However, more importantly, he continued to work as a contractor and consultant for Pallister’s government.

David McLaughlin is coming to work full-time for the Manitoba premier.

In March, Pallister flopped on his original flip and promised to bring in a Manitoba carbon tax in July. That plan has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic but there is a remote possibility McLaughlin got to the premier and talked him into showing a bit more faith in the blueprint.

Possibly. It’s always risky to assume anyone can “get” to the Manitoba premier and change his mind about anything. Still, there are no doubt countless Tories hoping against hope McLaughlin can be a steadying influence on a premier infamous for frequent and unanticipated course changes.

Through two election campaigns, McLaughlin was able to summon a degree of retail political competence and composure Pallister has not been able to replicate between votes.

Elected members of the PC government — at least those who see a career in politics beyond the next election — desperately need the return of campaign-style Pallister and a lot less of the guy who’s been steering the ship the last eight weeks or so.

The only thing certain is: if McLaughlin can’t do it, it’s quite likely nobody can.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister answers media questions during a COVID-19 press conference at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Monday.
Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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