Defiant under the dome Brian Pallister has lost some friends, made quite a few enemies and surprised some supporters in three austerity-minded years as premier... and he's OK with that
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/04/2019 (1501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a crowd that couldn’t be more suited to a Progressive Conservative premier.
Well-heeled, well-connected and welcoming to the Tory mantra of cutting taxes and reducing the deficit, they had gathered at a downtown ballroom last fall for a chance to dine and rub shoulders with Brian Pallister and his cabinet ministers.
There were drinks beforehand. There were handshakes. And there were laughs.
Just before dinner was served, the star of the show took to the stage to applause that was more than welcoming, but the six-foot-eight premier’s tone was dour as he adjusted the microphone height and gripped the podium.
Rather than trumpet his government’s throne speech — delivered a day earlier — to those who’d paid the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce $185 a ticket (plus GST) to network with him and the most influential members of his government, he chided anyone who would question the money his administration was spending on outside consultants.
With that stern message out of the way, Pallister reached out to the audience, saying its advice and input were critical in helping the government steer the province in the right direction.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I want to hear from you. My cabinet ministers at your tables want to hear from you.”
And then, having invited the assembled mix of business people, lobbyists and professionals, many with ties to the PC party, for some give and take, he ended his 10-minute speech and exited the room with an aide in tow before the salad was served.
Anyone who had counted on getting the ear of the most powerful politician in the province was out of luck. Left in his wake were his entire cabinet, his senior aides — and a good deal of head-scratching.
● ● ●
Three years after being sworn into office — the anniversary is May 3 — Manitoba’s 22nd premier remains an enigma.
Ambitious, combative, driven, at times thin-skinned and, by turns, charming and aloof, the 64-year-old Pallister rules the province with a damn-the-torpedoes attitude.
The bold approach has yielded results. His government inherited an annual operating deficit that was approaching a billion dollars under the NDP, but he’s charted a fiscal path that will see the red ink disappear from the province’s balance sheet in the next few years.
Under Pallister’s leadership, the government has undertaken an ambitious, and some would say long overdue, restructuring of Winnipeg’s hospital system, using as its blueprint a report commissioned by the former NDP government. And, after considerable preparatory work, it’s now taking the first hard look at the province’s K-12 education system in decades.
At the same time, the premier has kept a key promise from the 2016 election — the provincial sales tax will be reduced to seven per cent on July 1.
But along the way the premier — and by extension the government he leads — has alienated friends and foes alike. Manitoba’s relationship with Ottawa is adversarial to the point where agreements that could bring federal dollars to Manitoba are stalled. The province’s relationship with Winnipeg’s mayor has descended into open warfare.
The relationship between the provincial government and its largest Crown corporations is also uneasy, if not strained. Everything seemed to be humming along just fine until the Progressive Conservative-appointed boards — which had been promised they could exercise their powers to direct the corporations’ operations — started making decisions that clashed with the thinking on Broadway or, in at least one case, demanded a meeting with an unwilling premier.
The result has been the dismissal or demotion of key directors at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries and Manitoba Public Insurance, and an unprecedented mass resignation of directors at Manitoba Hydro.
Throughout all this upheaval, there’s been one constant: the pugnacious leadership style of Manitoba’s premier.
● ● ●
For a man who has been a provincial Progressive Conservative cabinet minister (under Gary Filmon), a Canadian Alliance and Conservative MP and now the premier, Brian Pallister is not a keen practitioner of what political insiders and observers like to call “retail politics.”
Unlike his predecessors, Pallister keeps a very light public social calendar, particularly in Winnipeg. While many in his cabinet — and inside the PC caucus — attend a staggering number of events, the premier can go several weeks between public appearances, according to his official Twitter account and copies of his calendar obtained by the Free Press.
It’s not that he can’t work a room, especially when he’s in his comfort zone at sporting and some business events, or in rural communities.
“When he turns on the charm in the right kind of crowd — one that’s not intimidating but a politically friendly crowd — he can be incredibly gracious and warm and everything else,” said one businessman.
From Jan. 1 through April 21, Pallister’s official Twitter account recorded him attending 14 events outside the office, including four government announcements, a total that past premiers would have logged in a few weeks.
Pallister’s Twitter account, maintained by staff, can give the illusion that he is at more public events than he attends.
For example, a video of the premier at a farm show in Brandon that appeared in January was actually shot in a previous year (the accompanying tweet acknowledged that with the hashtag #tbt, short for Throwback Thursday).
As @MBAgDays wraps up in Brandon �� here’s a #TBT to my time at Canada’s largest indoor farm show! �� The Ag industry is, and has always been the backbone of Manitoba’s economy! �� Watch here ���� #AgDays19 #mbpoli pic.twitter.com/KBWY0VCCg7
— Brian Pallister (@Brian_Pallister) January 24, 2019
While Pallister didn’t attend this year’s Festival du Voyageur, his Twitter account carried a video of an interview with organizers of the event.
�� Happy 50th Anniversary @FDVoyageur ! See our video below with @DarrelNadeau on what’s new for the 50th. #heho #fdv50 pic.twitter.com/D5exvG2PyP
— Brian Pallister (@Brian_Pallister) February 15, 2019
Similarly, in late March, the premier tweeted, “We popped in to visit our South Osborne neighbour and friend, @ChaebanIceCream…” But Pallister was nowhere to be found in the accompanying video.
�� We popped in to visit our South Osborne neighbour and friend, @ChaebanIceCream for some delicious ��and to celebrate #NationalMomAndPopBusinessOwnersDay ! Watch our video with owner, Joseph Chaeban����#MBBudget2019 #mbpoli pic.twitter.com/E8LtuqrtoR
— Brian Pallister (@Brian_Pallister) March 29, 2019
The Free Press has viewed several months worth of the premier’s meeting calendar, obtained through freedom of information legislation, although none since mid-2018 as the government has stonewalled further attempts to obtain this information. (A Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request made on Feb. 1 has yet to be formally acknowledged. The ombudsman’s office is investigating a complaint by the Free Press.)
Public events would cut into debt-reduction time: Pallister
Brian Pallister doesn’t apologize for his management style or the fact that he attends fewer public events than some of his predecessors.
“So, do you want to go to more events and double the debt or do you want me to have $5 billion less debt?”
Brian Pallister doesn’t apologize for his management style or the fact that he attends fewer public events than some of his predecessors.
“We’re getting results,” he says in an interview, responding to issues raised by a Free Press examination of his management style. “Measure me by results.”
Whether it’s fixing the province’s finances or improving services to Manitobans, the government he leads is getting things done, the premier said.
“So I don’t go to as many events, you’re saying, as (former premier) Greg Selinger did. Greg Selinger doubled the debt of the province in the last six years he was in (office),” Pallister says.
Manitoba was on a fiscal trajectory under the NDP that would have seen an additional $5 billion piled onto the province’s debt in the last three years had the Progressive Conservatives not changed course, he said.
“So, do you want to go to more events and double the debt or do you want me to have $5 billion less debt?”
Pallister claims his relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now “better than it’s ever been.”
“We are frank with each other. When we disagree, we disagree. And we have disagreed obviously in their approach on the carbon tax,” he says.
On Wednesday, Pallister spoke with the PM over the phone and the two commiserated about the flood situation in Manitoba as well as in Quebec and New Brunswick. Trudeau said he wanted federal infrastructure funds to flow to Manitoba for flood prevention, the premier says, while Pallister brought up delays in getting environmental approval for the Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin outlet projects.
In recent days, Pallister has adopted a more conciliatory tone towards Ottawa, praising Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s efforts on trade at a chamber of commerce breakfast last week. He told the Free Press, the PM also deserves credit on the trade file, particularly in the government’s dealings with its North American partners.
“He’s involved the provinces in a co-operative way on an ongoing basis,” Pallister says.
Meanwhile, the premier defended his decision to not hold regular meetings with Manitoba’s senior federal cabinet minister Jim Carr and Mayor Brian Bowman. The premier tends to delegate such meetings to members of his cabinet.
“If meetings were the key to getting results, then I’d have more meetings,” he says.
Pallister says he and Carr communicate more often than folks might think, as they frequently rub shoulders at events. “Jim and I have had… a dozen productive discussions. They don’t always have to be sitting down at my office or his office with a photo taken. We have lots of good dialogue.”
Pallister says his abrupt exit from a Manitoba Chambers of Commerce dinner last fall was intended to give the business crowd a chance to connect with his ministers.
As for the government’s high-profile run-ins with directors from Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, Pallister notes the institutions represent a tiny fraction of the agencies and corporations with Crown-appointed directors.
He defends a decision to halt a proposed Manitoba Hydro payment of $67.5 million (over 50 years) to the Métis that would have smoothed approvals for current and future projects and another decree placing a pause on Liquor & Lotteries’ plans to refurbish its Club Regent casino. He says what’s in the best interests of a corporation may not be in the best interests of Manitobans, in general.
“The buck stops with us…. We have a responsibility for the entire province of Manitoba and its people,” the premier says.
From June 29, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2017, the premier’s busiest schedule of outside events came in July and August, when he was a frequent visitor at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg, appeared at Folklorama and took in several rural events such as the Morden Corn and Apple Festival and the Manitoba Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede in Austin.
After Sept. 1, however, his public events were few and far between, occurring mainly outside of Winnipeg, while his meetings rarely took him outside the confines of the Legislative Building.
In September, apart from a caucus retreat in Gimli, a chat with federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer at a downtown Winnipeg hotel and a couple of announcements, the premier represented Manitoba at six public events, according to his calendar.
His public schedule in October that year was even lighter. In November, he broke his arm during a wilderness hike in New Mexico, resulting in very few events outside the office. In December, he strayed outside of his office on two occasions.
The Free Press was also able to obtain a copy of the premier’s calendar for a six-week period between May 21 and July 1, 2018. It shows Pallister attending a total of 10 outside events.
“When he turns on the charm in the right kind of crowd– one that’s not intimidating but a politically friendly crowd — he can be incredibly gracious and warm and everything else.”
Pallister will take a pass on events that past premiers would have regarded as must-attend occasions. This past winter, for instance, he was a no-show — at least in an official capacity — at the 50th anniversary of the Festival du Voyageur. Neither did he attend the event the year before.
About 16 months ago, Pallister passed up an opportunity for positive public exposure that most politicians would kill for. The Sunday-night national NHL broadcast, Rogers Hometown Hockey, was in Winnipeg, and the premier was invited to be a guest. He sent deputy premier Heather Stefanson in his place.
Pallister’s light schedule away from the office belies his statements — usually uttered when defending his time at his vacation home in Costa Rica — that he works harder than his predecessors.
Once when a news report cited no evidence of phone logs or email exchanges between Pallister and his staff while in Costa Rica, he said: “I work harder than any premier that’s been around here for a long time. I don’t have to defend my work ethic to you or to anyone else.”
However, even before he became premier, Pallister’s public schedule was lighter than that of past opposition leaders. A CBC investigation showed that during his time in that role, he spent nearly one in five days in Costa Rica or en route to and from his vacation home there.
Those close to former premier Gary Doer say he took very few vacations while in office and when he did he was in daily contact with staff. Doer would attend public events almost daily, including weekends, and it was not uncommon for him to attend multiple events on the same day.
The NDP premier augmented his public appearances by doing a weekly morning radio spot (Breakfast with the Premier) on CJOB as well as hosting a monthly radio town hall event in which he took calls from the public that were not vetted beforehand. His punishing schedule allowed him to constantly take the pulse of the electorate. Doer’s successor, Greg Selinger, kept a similarly intense schedule.
Pallister’s less-hectic public schedule does not mean that the former businessman and self-made millionaire fails to put in long hours on the job. He clearly reads his briefing notes and appears to be on top of all major government files. He can answer questions on an array of topics at the drop of a hat. And, in his quest to balance the province’s books, he has scrutinized the government’s operations in impressive detail.
However, in shying away from the ceremonial and outwardly political aspects of his job, Pallister appears to approach the role of premier as though he were Manitoba’s chief executive officer. In fact, speaking at a recent chamber of commerce breakfast, he twice referred to the government as the “company.”
“I found success in my life beyond most people’s expectations, and I’ve done that by working hard and effectively,” Pallister said in an interview with the Free Press.
“Whether it was in my sports career or as a community volunteer in various organizations or in private business, now in politics. I’m concerned about results.”
Pallister is known for enjoying the company of his own thoughts, savouring his solitude, be it hiking alone in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, jogging or bicycling around the original family farmstead near Portage la Prairie or unwinding at his Costa Rica retreat.
Even when he is at work, he will block off days at a time that are free of meetings where the only notation between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. is “research.” It’s in private moments, such as these, that he likely develops the ideas that wind up becoming government policy.
Pallister doesn’t appear to consult widely on policy issues, and his group of advisers in government is smaller than in past administrations, a source of pride to the man in charge.
“The downside (to the premier’s leadership style) is I don’t think he talks to a lot of people,” said a source with knowledge of Pallister’s routine. “The upside is he actually has very good (political) instincts.”
The source describes Pallister as a creative thinker with an agile mind who can synthesize a lot of information and “spit out” good policy and political strategy. “His best policy adviser is himself.”
Once the premier believes he has thought an issue through, though, it can be difficult to get him to change his mind.
“I think he genuinely puts in long hours, and I think he genuinely works hard,” said a member of the business community. “But it comes from his ego and the fact that when he thinks he’s thought through an issue and he’s come up with an answer that there can be no other answer but the conclusion that he’s come up with.”
“I think he genuinely puts in long hours, and I think he genuinely works hard. But it comes from his ego and the fact that when he thinks he’s thought through an issue and he’s come up with an answer that there can be no other answer but the conclusion that he’s come up with.”
An incident illustrative of the premier’s solitary style occurred a little over a year ago on a trip to Iowa City, where he met with researchers to learn more about the effects of cannabis-impaired driving.
Past premiers undertaking such a fact-finding mission would likely have travelled with a small entourage. Pallister surprised his American hosts by arriving alone — he had travelled the 1,220 kilometres from Winnipeg by car, accompanied by his wife Esther.
Timothy Brown, one of the Iowa experts who met with Pallister, said they had “a good chat.” The meetings had been pre-arranged by the premier’s staff.
“Our conversation really seemed like he was trying to better understand the issues. He didn’t seem like he came with an axe to grind…. He didn’t come like he was looking to get something that backed up any preconceived ideas. Our conversation was a pretty open one,” Brown later told the Free Press.
Asked if he was taken aback that the head of a provincial government would arrive for the two hour-plus session unaccompanied by staff, Brown said: “A little bit. In the States, our politicians always have a staffer with them.”
In any case, the trip occurred during spring break, a week MLAs don’t sit. And a review of the premier’s travel expenses, posted online, shows he didn’t bill taxpayers for the trip.
Before Brian Pallister became a successful businessman, and well before he was first elected to political office, he was a schoolteacher in Gladstone.
If one were to sum up his time as premier much the way a teacher comments on a student’s term in a report card, it might read: “studious, focused, ambitious, doesn’t play well with others.”
The Pallister government’s quarrels with Ottawa, Mayor Brian Bowman and with the Tory-appointed directors of Crown corporations are well-documented. They’ve become a source of concern to business, to ordinary citizens and to social and government agencies who depend on bilateral and trilateral programs.
Manitoba recently became the last province in the country to sign onto a major health accord with Ottawa that will see $400 million in federal money come Manitoba’s way over the next decade for home and community care and addictions and mental-health services.
When details of the first five years of the program were unveiled a few weeks ago, the province was quick to say that despite signing on late to the initiative, announced in the 2017 federal budget, it would not lose out on any of the money. But there’s no doubt that if the negotiations had been smoother, funding for needed programs would have begun to flow sooner.
The Pallister government’s friction with the other two levels of government has stemmed, in part, from the fact that Manitoba has been focused almost exclusively on balancing the province’s books, rather than in participating in cost-share programs or investments that would grow the economy. There have also been some genuine ideological differences, such as over Ottawa’s decision to legalize cannabis.
But the premier’s reluctance to meet face-to-face with Bowman and Jim Carr, the province’s lone federal cabinet minister, also appears to be a factor.
Bowman’s last sit-down meeting with Pallister occurred in December, leading to questions about the acrimony that has characterized the relationship between the city and the province in recent months — particularly over roadwork funding — and whether a genuine heart-to-heart talk might have cleared the air.
Instead, Pallister, exercising the considerable legislative power the province has over municipalities, recently announced an independent review of how the City of Winnipeg approves and inspects construction and development projects.
The announcement came with no prior notice to the city and was met with suspicion by the mayor. That same day, Pallister, suggesting the city was incapable of controlling its costs, offered the province’s help for a broad fiscal performance review of the city’s operations.
Carr has not had a formal sit-down meeting with the premier since the early days of the PC government three years ago.
There have been several phone calls between the two men as issues have arisen, such as over the aerospace industry and the rail line to Churchill, but no regular contact, the federal minister said in a recent interview.
“We had a long meeting just after he was elected, but no one-to-one, face-to-face meeting since then,” Carr said.
On more than one occasion, Carr said he’s attempted to organize trilateral meetings with the premier and Bowman but has been unsuccessful. The first time he tried, Pallister dispatched Stefanson in his place. A more recent effort to gather the leaders together was met with resistance by the premier’s office. The message from Pallister was that no other province was conducting such meetings, and Manitoba would participate in bilateral meetings on specific subjects.
Pallister’s combative stance with Ottawa marks a departure from the more diplomatic tone struck by premiers in recent times.
“For a less-powerful province like Manitoba, you can’t afford to take too strong a stance and antagonize the elites in Ottawa — the prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the senior ranks of the bureaucracy — by being obstinate and taking shots at them in public, and so on. Quiet diplomacy works better,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus in political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“(Gary) Doer never took on (former prime minister Stephen) Harper directly. He never confronted him directly. He knew what you’d get back from Harper. You’d be shut out.”
Many in the business community feel that Pallister should be trying harder to play nice with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. One said the premier appears to be acting as though he were still a Canadian Alliance opposition MP, critiquing the government in power.
“You’ve got to be the adult in the room,” said one chamber of commerce member. “You’ve got to live with the Trudeaus. He got elected and you can be all mad about it, and you can think he’s shallow and all that… but at the end of the day these guys (the federal government) provide a third of the provincial budget.”
At a recent question-and-answer session with Manitoba Chambers of Commerce president Chuck Davidson, Pallister was asked whether he was concerned that his rocky relationships with the other two levels of government was impeding progress in Manitoba.
“It’s OK to disagree,” he responded in part. “The dynamic of disagreement is just creative thinking in action.”
He also repeated an old chestnut he likes to use in his defence: “If two people are always in agreement, then one of them isn’t thinking.”
Pressed by Davidson about his lack of meetings with Bowman and Carr, Pallister said: “I recognize the need for meetings when necessary but I have ministers for that, and that’s what I will continue to do, is trust my colleagues. This is a team, it’s not a one-man show.
“The first thing that would happen if I started taking ministers’ meetings would be that I’d be accused of being a dictator and a power-broker and a control freak. So, I’m not going to run the organization that way. And if any of you run your business that way it’s probably a small business with just one person in it.”
However, only the premier can sign off on certain government files. And individual premiers always have pet issues upon which they insist on having the final word. If the premier doesn’t address them, frustration can set in.
“For a less-powerful province like Manitoba, you can’t afford to take too strong a stance and antagonize the elites in Ottawa– the prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the senior ranks of the bureaucracy — by being obstinate and taking shots at them in public, and so on. Quiet diplomacy works better.”
This appears to be what occurred a year ago when nearly the entire board of Manitoba Hydro resigned.
The PC-appointed board, headed by prominent businessman Sandy Riley, president and CEO of Richardson Financial Group, had been attempting unsuccessfully for months to meet with the premier to discuss the corporation’s fiscal challenges.
Meanwhile, the same board had approved what it considered to be a fair, sensible and cost-effective plan that recognized the Charter rights of the Métis and assured the corporation that it would not face legal challenges to existing and future projects, such as the proposed Manitoba-Minnesota power transmission line.
Hydro had reached a tentative agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation on a $67.5-million deal that would prevent it from having to undergo potentially expensive negotiations with the Métis on a project-by-project basis in the future.
In November 2017, after the board approved the deal, it submitted it to government for Pallister’s approval. It wasn’t so much that government approval was legally required, but the agreement was innovative, covering 50 years and structured in such a way that the vast majority of the money would be spent on economic development in Métis communities. Riley felt the government should sign off on it before the official signing ceremony took place with the MMF.
Hydro waited and waited. The calendar tripped over to 2018 and there was still no response.
Meanwhile, Riley and his fellow directors, who included several other successful business people, the president of the University of Winnipeg, a former executive director of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba and a former longtime Hydro executive, were becoming exasperated at their inability to meet with the premier about the corporation’s financial situation.
While Cliff Cullen was officially the minister responsible for Hydro at the time, the premier called the shots when it came to any important decision regarding the province’s biggest Crown corporation, a source told the Free Press.
In late March 2018, after receiving word that the government was intending to replace Riley on the Hydro board, all directors — with the exception of then-Tory MLA Cliff Graydon — resigned en masse.
Pallister reacted to this first significant challenge to his leadership by taking the offensive. He brought the $67.5-million tentative deal to the public’s attention for the first time, dismissing it in the legislature as “hush money” and claiming it was the real reason for the schism between himself and the board.
Cabinet passed an order to quash the deal the day the board announced its mass resignation. But Hydro hadn’t planned to sign the deal without the premier’s blessing. And it never got a chance to make its case.
Within days of the mass resignations, Pallister was using the dispute to raise money for the PC party, issuing a mass email to past and present members calling for donations.
This further outraged the MMF, led by David Chartrand, which has taken the government and Hydro to court over the nixed deal and is now threatening to do anything in its power to hold up construction of the Manitoba-Minnesota line, a vitally important link that would allow the province to boost exports of surplus power to the United States.
The province was within its rights to cancel the deal, but the way it was done has caused irreparable harm to its relationship with a key Indigenous group. For the premier, it’s a bridge burned.
Since speaking out publicly about his frustrations in dealing with the government in the aftermath of the Hydro board resignations, Riley has said little about the episode that made national news.
However, the longtime Progressive Conservative sent the premier a pointed message by donating $5,000 to the Manitoba Liberal party last year, public documents released this week show.
As Pallister enters the fourth year of his mandate there’s been ongoing speculation — fuelled mainly by the premier himself — that the government is going to call an election this year. Under Manitoba’s fixed-election date rules, the next election should be held Oct. 6, 2020.
However, the premier appears to be intent on defying convention — if not the letter of the law — by holding the vote this year.
It’s unclear why he favours an early vote. He has stated that he doesn’t want an election to mar the celebrations of Manitoba’s 150th birthday next year. It’s been speculated that he has a retirement date in mind and he’d like to win a second mandate sooner rather than later so that he can hand the reins of power to his successor.
There’s also speculation that he wants to hold the vote before problems created by the government’s hospital reforms come home to roost.
If he does go to the polls later this year, Pallister can point to several accomplishments in his first three years. Private-sector investment is up, and government spending is under control. Some health-system wait times have been reduced. The sales tax is about to be cut.
And Manitoba’s premier has done it all — his way.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Updated on Monday, April 29, 2019 2:29 PM CDT: fixes typo