New adviser adept at protecting Pallister from himself


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The timing could not have been worse for Premier Brian Pallister.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/04/2017 (2222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The timing could not have been worse for Premier Brian Pallister.

Last week, Great-West Life announced it was cutting 450 jobs from its 3,500-job head office in Winnipeg as the financial services giant struggles with competition from digital rivals. Although the layoffs had nothing to do with Pallister or his government, the premier felt the sting.

Pallister is walking a fiscal tightrope, working diligently to control expenditures in a bid to reduce the budget deficit while trying to grow the economy.

John Woods / The Canadian Press Files Premier Brian Pallister, like all premiers, needs advisers who have the fortitude to speak their minds and push back when necessary.

His austerity measures — closing hospital emergency rooms, laying off hundreds, instituting precariously small funding increases to core departments, capping core infrastructure funding and freezing capital spending in health and education — is threatening to stall the slow economy.

The Great-West layoffs are not Pallister’s fault. To its credit, the NDP opposition hasn’t yet tried to blame Pallister, although it is standard practice for opposition parties — all opposition parties — to blame everything on the government. The Progressive Conservatives did it to the NDP when it was in power; the NDP has certainly dabbled in the same politics since it came to was returned to the opposition benches.

Still, the Great-West layoffs did expose a more inherent problem facing the government: getting the message right.

In question period last week, NDP MLA Wab Kinew, currently the only candidate running in his party’s leadership race, used the topic of the Great-West layoffs to press Pallister on job creation. According to Kinew, Pallister only knows how to cut jobs, not create them.

Pallister sat patiently while Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen provided heavily scripted, workmanlike answers to Kinew’s questions. Finally, Pallister had clearly had enough. He rose to his feet.

“Well, I appreciate a question from the member on something his party has expertise on: knowing what people won’t vote for,” Pallister told the house. “What people won’t vote for is higher taxes… The party the member now seeks the leadership of has a legacy of promising that they won’t raise taxes and then following up by raising them to record levels, in fact, more so than any other government in Canada, right on the heels of promising they wouldn’t raise them.

“If the member wants a little lesson on how to uncreate jobs, he can take a look at Economics 101 textbooks and they’ll talk about the importance of leaving money in the hands of the people who work for it.”

This was not the right answer to Kinew’s question. This was not the time to talk about tax cuts. This was the time to express some sympathy for those who were laid off, while acknowledging that fiscal prudence he is delivering will ultimately put the province on a more solid economic foundation.

Instead, Pallister did what he does best — he lashed out at his political enemies while beating the facts to death with a rhetorical hammer.

Despite claims from fiscal hawks, tax cuts do not create jobs. Despite the fact that former NDP premier Greg Selinger did break a promise by raising the PST to fund infrastructure, the former government did not set any national tax hike records. 

All that Pallister did in this exchange with Kinew is feed the anxiety of political enemies who think he has a secret plan to cut taxes and undermine core government services.

In fact, this one exchange serves as a microcosm of just how bad Pallister is at messaging.

During his first year, Pallister has struggled to bridge the gap between what he said he was going to do during the election and what he has done while in power. He has frequently made claims about the performance of the former government, and its finances, that were patently false. His ministers have struggled mightily to navigate house debates and media interviews.

The cumulative effect of this mangled messaging should be cause for concern in Toryland: despite the absence of anything that resembles effective opposition from the leaderless Liberals and NDP, polls show Pallister has lost support since the 2016 election.

Perhaps that is why Pallister made a significant change to his inner circle late last week.

Last Thursday, it was announced that communications director Olivia Baldwin-Valainis, arguably Pallister’s closest political adviser, was leaving her post to head up something called the transformation management office, a new entity created to oversee change in the health-care system. 

The office could represent a significant step up in responsibility for Baldwin-Valainis. But for now, she is the head of an office that has no staff and no budget. And overseeing change in the health-care system is hardly a one-woman job.

This announcement has the appearance of a soft landing created for a formerly trusted staffer that Pallister may no longer trust. 

The same cannot be said about her replacement.

Baldwin-Valainis will be succeeded by former Tory campaign director David McLaughlin, who has been advising Pallister on a carbon tax plan and budget matters.

Although Baldwin-Valainis can hardly be blamed for all of the government’s messaging woes, there is every reason to believe things will be better under McLaughlin. 

Although Baldwin-Valainis was by all accounts a trusted adviser, McLaughlin is the person who managed to contain Pallister during the election campaign and suppress his natural tendency to say and do embarrassing or controversial things. Pallister has a reputation for being slow to trust anyone; during the most important election of his life, he demonstrated a resounding trust for McLaughlin. 

All premiers need advisers who have the fortitude to speak their minds and push back when necessary. To date, it’s not clear Pallister has had that person in his inner circle. Too often, it seems, he has been left on his own to improvise when responding to questions or making important policy statements. Or, as was demonstrated by the exchange with Kinew, Pallister takes the bait and says things that only reinforce the image his political enemies are trying to paint.

Politics is littered with stories of good and noble people who were undermined by an inability to communicate their intentions. With a new communications adviser and a steadier hand on government messaging, Pallister has given himself a much better chance of avoiding that fate.


Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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.


Updated on Monday, May 1, 2017 8:53 AM CDT: Corrects number of Great-West Life employees

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