Unusually genial Pallister heads for the exit

We may never know the straw that broke Premier Brian Pallister's back.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/08/2021 (420 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We may never know the straw that broke Premier Brian Pallister’s back.

It could have been last month’s resignation of former cabinet minister Eileen Clarke, who could not abide his inflammatory comments about colonial settlers.

It might have been the handful of ministers and backbenchers who made unflattering comments on social media.

Or perhaps the humiliating revelation he ordered his political staff to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

Whatever finally pushed him over the edge to announce his retirement from politics, when Pallister strode up to a microphone in Brandon on Tuesday afternoon, he looked very much like a man who had just reached his breaking point.

Pallister’s announcement, after which he did not take any questions, was remarkably convivial, absent of any of the tortured hyperbole or openly partisan barbs that were his hallmarks. He lavished praise on the province, his government and the citizens who elected him to public office both in Portage la Prairie (when he was a federal MP) and in Winnipeg.

David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister did not offer any details on exactly when he would step down.

But there were still a few undeniably Pallister moments.

Most notably, he did not offer any details on exactly when he would step down. The PC party executive will be meeting in the coming days to determine the rules and timetable for a leadership convention, he said.

Still, it is unusual for retiring leaders not to offer at least a couple of details on the timetable. Speculation abounds about exactly when his term as first minister comes to a close.

Tory insiders have long noted Pallister wants to chair the Council of the Federation meeting of provincial and territorial premiers in Winnipeg this October and that remains the most likely date for a formal retirement. But no matter how you look at it, making an announcement this week on his intention to leave politics suggests that recent controversies forced him to move up the timetable.

Still, there is no certainty he will step down after that meeting or, in fact, any time in the near or medium-term future. Despite all of his talk about the importance of teamwork and loyalty, he is a politician who has always looked out for himself, first and foremost. The party may set the date for a convention, but the timetable will undoubtedly be Pallister’s.

There is not enough room here to provide a full assessment of his time in office. But suffice to say, Pallister will go down as perhaps the most eccentric premier in Manitoba history, the leader of a government that was, in every way, a roller-coaster of volatility and emotion.

He dropped the gloves with any and all constituencies. He fought openly with Indigenous leaders, bullied public-sector unions with the threat of a wage freeze and used his acute indifference to estrange himself from key groups including doctors, nurses and teachers.

On fiscal policy, he remained laser-focused on eliminating the deficit and cutting taxes, both of which he was able to accomplish earlier than he first promised in the 2016 election campaign. Even as he faced a crippling economic collapse from the pandemic, he pushed ahead with a deep cut to education property taxes, a risky, if not foolish, move at a time of great uncertainty.

Pallister’s fiscal accomplishments could not mask the damage he has done to key government services. The health-care system was in crisis before the pandemic hit, thanks to a botched hospital reorganization plan in Winnipeg and anemic funding that led to huge increases in surgical wait times.

The public school system had also been starved of funding while also being subjected to a comprehensive reorganization of divisions and governance through the infamous Bill 64. The amalgamation of divisions outlined under this proposed law had become a millstone around the necks of Tory MLAs, even in diehard rural PC ridings. More than one MLA had let Pallister know they could not survive the next election if Bill 64 was passed into law.

It all added up to a significant drop in personal and public support that threatened to bring the party from the pinnacle of electoral success in 2019 to what opinion polls suggest now could be a loss in 2023.

Hanging in the air after Tuesday’s announcement is a single, burning question: was Pallister pushed, or did he jump? If you had to pick one scenario, the former is way more likely.

Hanging in the air after Tuesday’s announcement is a single, burning question: was Pallister pushed, or did he jump? If you had to pick one scenario, the former is way more likely.

The slow, simmering discontent from the drop in public support boiled over last month when Clarke — a longtime friend and political ally — tendered her very public resignation. Her departure convinced several others in cabinet and caucus to indicate their own displeasure, a trend that was no doubt going to continue at the Brandon caucus meeting. Why would he want to stick around for that?

Pallister’s final words in his announcement serve as the perfect metaphor for his five messy years in government. Leaning into one of his most-used phrases, he was clearly trying to generate an poignant elegy, those memorable final words that would follow him into the history books.

Instead, he inadvertently authored a punchline.

“That is why I say to you: the only thing better than today in Manitoba is tomorrow in Manitoba.”

Ironically, that is exactly what many Manitobans, including many Tories, are thinking now that he is stepping down.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

 

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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