Pallister plays the odds, wins again


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When Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister decided to call an early election, he knew the odds were in his favour.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/09/2019 (1354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister decided to call an early election, he knew the odds were in his favour.

Voters in Canada rarely punish politicians for going to the polls early, even when it’s obvious the motivation is self-serving.

There have been exceptions to that rule. Ontario premier David Peterson was famously defeated in 1990, after calling an early election while riding high in the polls. Voters saw through the Liberal leader’s opportunism and denied him a third term in office. He even lost his own seat.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Brian Pallister counted on voter indifference when he called an early election. His calculations proved right.

Jim Prentice suffered a similar fate in Alberta after calling an early vote in 2015, a year before the province’s fixed-date election. But the Tory leader’s defeat was likely due to other factors: the PC party was plagued by scandal under former premier Alison Redford, and the right-leaning Wildrose Party continued to bleed away traditional conservative support. After more than 40 years in government, the time-for-a-change dynamic finally caught up with the Alberta Tories.

For the most part, voters have shown indifference to early national election calls. Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien twice called early elections (1997 and 2000) and was re-elected with majority governments both times. Stephen Harper also called two early elections (2006 and 2008, both under minority governments), violating his own Tory government’s fixed-date election law. He was returned to power each time, and eventually with a majority in 2011.

Pallister counted on similar voter indifference when he called an early election. His calculations proved right.

The vote was held more than a year before Manitoba’s fixed-election date of Oct. 6, 2020. And it appears few cared about the timing of the call: Pallister was returned to office with a majority government.

There was no strategic advantage for the premier to go to the polls early. It’s unlikely his party’s popularity would have changed much before next year. With the Tories making good on their pledge to cut taxes and eliminate the deficit, the party might even see its popularity grow, especially if government’s health-care reforms start showing signs of success.

The excuse Pallister gave — that he didn’t want a 2020 election to interfere with the province’s 150th birthday celebration — was never seen as legitimate. Pallister, himself, rarely mentioned it during the campaign.

The only remaining consideration is the premier’s personal timeline.

It’s widely believed Pallister, 65, won’t seek a third mandate. The Tory leader has denied he called a 2019 election to pave the way for early retirement. However, he has already cut a year off his time in office by going to the polls now.

Not surprisingly, when asked during the campaign, Pallister said he would serve a full second term if re-elected. He couldn’t say otherwise; politicians don’t seek re-election and announce they plan to duck out early.

Even if Pallister does serve until the next provincial election, the definition of a “full term” will likely become the subject of debate as his expected retirement date approaches. Pallister’s first term as premier was three years, four-plus months. If he serves a similar length of time in his second, he could announce his retirement in early 2023. If so, that would make him a seven-year (or less), two-term premier.

Such a move would give the PC party plenty of time to elect a new leader, and have that person get comfortable in the role, well before the election, which could be delayed until spring 2024. (Manitoba’s next fixed date is October 2023. If that interferes with a federal election — also scheduled for about the same time — the provincial vote could be moved back six months.)

If Pallister were truly interested in staying on for the long haul — more than two short terms — he wouldn’t have called an election in 2019. There was no reason for it. But, in the end, it didn’t hurt him at the ballot box.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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