After Brian Pallister became leader of the moribund Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, and before becoming the province’s 22nd premier, he was standing in a parking lot of a community hall in the small town of Marquette, talking about his frustration as a politician without control.
"I feel like a steer," he said, in the spring of 2013. "But it’s not because I don’t have the balls. It’s because I can’t feel the power."
Pallister is nothing if not blunt. Not as an MLA in the 1990s in the Filmon government, nor as a Conservative MP for Portage—Lisgar from 2000 to 2008.
But when asked about that quote while sitting in his office at the legislative building, Pallister feigns an objection.
"No, I would never say something like that," he said.
Yet when asked about how it feels to be the bull, not the steer, to carry the metaphor, Pallister replies with language much more of a man in power as opposed to one seeking it.
He talks about "practical application" as opposed to "theoretical" opposition.
"It’s different," the premier began, seated a long way from that Marquette parking lot. "You don’t have the resources (in opposition). You don’t have the ability to understand the background, sometimes. So in opposition, it’s easier, in some ways, to come up with an instant solution that may or may not work.
"But when you’re in government you’ve got to apply everything you’ve learned in your life. I’m drawing on my coaching days, I’m drawing on my private-sector business background. Some days I’m drawing on whatever parenting skills I’ve developed, too.
"It’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had, in that sense."
Pallister, 63, has been on the job he’s always wanted for 15 months and counting. Even before taking office, there was controversy. Bull, meet china shop.
There were questions about long holidays at his winter retreat in Costa Rica. There are questions, still dogging his administration, about the emails sent via private devices to and from that vacation villa. On the latter subject, Pallister is unapologetic.
"I did a security investigation and analysis and we found out there were ways to do a better job on security that hadn’t been used in the past," he said. "The reason I used my personal phone was so you (the taxpayer) wouldn’t pay for it.
"But now we’ve got analysis that says we can be more secure if we all use government phones and we can use certain security screening. I don’t pretend to know the nature of the stuff (security). I just wanted to make sure the information was protected. We haven’t had a leak. So that’s good, right?"
However, most of the criticism — and fear — surrounding Pallister’s government has been focused on extensive cuts and "belt tightening" in the provincial health-care system and its annual $6-billion budget. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of health-care infrastructure projects, approved under the previous NDP government, were cancelled. Almost 200 management positions in health authorities were axed. Hospital emergency rooms and clinics have been closed or are about to be.
Critics have described the cuts as "reckless."
"At this point, we can safely say that health care in Manitoba is in distress," said Debbie Boissonneault, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees provincial health-care council. "This government is going too far, too fast and someone is going to get hurt."
Meanwhile, Pallister has been engaged in a high-profile showdown with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on several fronts; most notably federal health-care transfers, but also climate change, the legalization of marijuana and Ottawa’s role in the fate of Churchill, the northern Manitoba community that has been without rail service since May.
Pallister said he doesn’t toss and turn at night, noting: "I’ve never had a job that’s as hard or challenging and that I’ve loved this much. This is a chance to change the province for the better. It’s what I’ve worked all my life to do.
"I mean, for sure there’s challenges. That’s what I love about it. That’s why I applied for the job. The fiscal challenges are real. The social challenges that we have as a province are real. And we should be at the forefront of making improvements. We are going to be. I see that now. It’s really encouraging."
The Free Press sat down with the premier recently for a one-hour interview to get a sense of the thought process behind the leader’s insistence on making decisions he knows will be unpopular. (Pallister’s approval rating has fallen to 41 per cent, versus 47 per cent disapproval, in the last Angus Reid poll in June.)
We also asked Pallister about Trudeau, about U.S. President Donald Trump and about being an acquired taste. After all, it took him four years to get an approval rating from his wife’s family.
(Note: Some questions and answers were slightly edited or paraphrased for space.)
Free Press: Some politicians get elected promising to spend, build infrastructure. You campaigned on cutting inefficiencies, cutting costs, which is not the easiest thing to do.
Pallister: No, it’s very hard. The noisiest time of every farm each year is when you wean the calves. So people are used to having governments spend more every year. Year after year.
We’ve gotten used to it in Manitoba and our deficits have grown and grown. We inherited a billion-dollar deficit. What is that? Well, it’s close to $3 million a day going out more than coming in. You cannot feel secure about a situation like that.
Now I’ve been attacked because we’re not lowering (spending) fast enough. But we have some of the major social challenges in the country. Our health-care system hasn’t been working effectively. And our social services are clearly needed, but not delivering as effective outcomes... as people would want.
So it isn’t like we inherited a top-notch everything. We inherited sort of the bottom-of-the-barrel.
And we got surprised by the federal government reducing health-care transfers. That’s significant. We’re talking $2.2-billion difference in how much Ottawa sends us over the next 10 years. Two-point-two billion isn’t chump change.
FP: But you must have been prepared for the negative reaction.
Pallister: I understand it, totally. I get the sense that some of the public-sector unions might be having trouble adjusting to these changes. Well, it’s totally predictable, right? They’ve been in charge of the government and the NDP for 17 years. Now they’re just in charge of the NDP. That’s a big adjustment for them. I get that.
But the province can’t be run for just a few people, it has to be run for everyone. And it has to be run sustainably.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I’d rather be respected than liked. You have to do some difficult things. In raising your family, in making your own financial decisions. It’s not easy. And it’s no easier being in government. But the responsibilities are the same, only multiplied a million times.
FP: You’re dealing with real people... people who are getting laid off. But you think it’s the hard decision that has to be made?
Pallister: I know it’s the right thing to do. I know there’s no all-seeing, all-knowing man in my skin. I’m doing the absolute best I can with everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve studied to make things better. I didn’t get in this job to try and make things harder on people.
I get how it feels for people who’ve worked in the civil service, particularly in management, where we are trimming. Because it’s too big out there. The (Winnipeg Regional Health Authority) has doubled the number of management personnel it had 10 years ago, but the results didn’t get better.
So, yeah, I’m trimming at the top mostly, really trying to protect the front line. I’m not going to be perfect, but doing the absolute best I can to that. But nobody said it would be easy. If you do the easy thing, you’re just going to perpetuate the problem.
Like we reduced the number of cabinet ministers from 20 to 12... well, 13 with me. If I wanted to make everybody happy I guess I should have had a big cabinet, right? But I wanted to send a message that if we’re going to get this thing fixed we’ve got to set the proper tone at the top of the organization. You’ve got to trim it down.
In the private sector — I mean, I’m talking to the Free Press — businesses have to do things that are not easy in order to survive.
For too many people in public life, over many years they have gone the easy way of doing what they perceived to be accepted by everybody right away. It isn’t the stuff you like instantly that’s the best stuff all the time.
And that’s certainly true with politics and public policy-making. If you’re going to do a poll with every decision you’re going to make in your life you’re not going to be the master of your own destiny or anyone else’s.
FP: So you might be an acquired taste?
Pallister: I probably am. I told you (in a previous interview) when (wife) Esther said to me during the election campaign, "You know, if you get through this thing you’ll win next time for sure." I said, "Why?" She said, "Oh, it took my family at least four years to like you." It’s true.
It’s the nature of maturity. Maybe the selection of your friends is very different now that it would have been when you’re 25. I’ve learned over the years with everybody there’s grain and there’s chafe. And you have to look for the grain.
There’s qualities you like or you don’t. And you weigh your relationships on that basis, not on what smiles and it’s pleasant instantly. That doesn’t mean there’s anything beyond that.
So I get the hard parts of this job. I do worry about what we have to do, in the sense of its impacts on people. But I worry also about the impacts on people about not having the courage to do the things that need to be done.
And it’s pretty easy for governments to get in the habit of spending other people’s money. And those other people are coming after us, whether it’s you or me when we really, really need health care. Or it’s a kid who hasn’t even had a chance to work yet and is taxed for all the stuff some politicians gave away 20 years before.
There are other people to think about, not just the ephemeral present day. The Indigenous cultures are good on this stuff. The seven generations. When you make a decision, you don’t make it for today. You reflect on the decision’s impact, not only this year but seven generations out in the future. That’s good.
(At this point, Pallister, a voracious reader, is asked what books he’s reading presently. The premier walks over to his desk and produces a dogged-eared copy of A Sand County Almanac (1949), written by Aldo Leopold, prominent U.S. conservationist and philosopher in the first half of the 20th century who is considered the father of environmental ethics. In his early years, Pallister explains, Leopold was hired to hunt wolves that were killing deer on the side of a mountain side.)
Pallister: And he’s good at it. He kills a bunch of wolves. So the rabbit population (exploded). And the rabbits eat all the undergrowth.
Then the rains come and erode the side of the mountain. He (Leopold) says, "You’ve got to stop thinking short term. You have to start thinking like a mountain."
Cool. Think like a mountain.
FP: Have you used that?
Pallister: When I’m convincing staff that we have to not do things that are just popular.
(More Pallister philosophy: the 10 Commandments are instructed ethics. Do these things. The Golden Rule requires you to think. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. You have to think about that.)
Pallister: Back to our theme here, it’s to ask yourself, not just what is the easy thing. My brother and I fought like tigers when we were kids, over any little thing. And as we get older we just tell each other the truth and respect it. We’ve become good friends and advisers because of that.
Your friend isn’t the person who just nods their head when you do something wrong, or what they perceive to be wrong. A friend says, "Did you think about that?" And holds up a mirror to your face and says, "Do you like what you see right now?"
That’s a friend. But I didn’t define friends like that when I was a young man.
FP: A lot of your pursuits are solitary: hiking, biking, going to movies alone. Why?
Pallister: (whose next book to read is Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Vancouver author Michael Harris) I used to fill my time with work, and I still do.
But I need and I get a lot of joy out of the flip of that. Just being alone, walking in nature. Just reflecting. I think it’s the old law of scarcity gives value, too.
I think everybody needs balance and this is not a balanced life. Sitting too much, thinking too much. Too many meetings. Too much negativity.
But you have to recognize them as realities and counter with your own adjustments, right?
FP: So, what’s it like to be Brian Pallister in public these days? You’re not a Winnipeg Blue Bombers or Winnipeg Jets player. Nobody is picking up your meal tab in restaurants.
Pallister: I didn’t get into politics for the adulation, but I will tell you two contrasting events.
One was last Friday when I watched the adulation with which teenagers treated the prime minister of Canada, and I said, "Good for him." That’s not something I desire.
The second thing is when I went to Canada Day at Assiniboine Park and the lineup for photo ops with me was longer than the lineup for the bouncy castle... and the poutine line. (Chuckles)
I get how it could be addictive. Wouldn’t be addictive for me, ever.
FP: Have you ever posted a selfie on your Twitter account?
Pallister: (Blank stare) Well, I think you already know.
FP: But I can envision a little old lady shaking her fist at you on the street. (Pallister stands 6-8).
Pallister: Some of the negativity? No, it’s fine. Yeah, there’s a bit of that, for sure.
I had a guy at Assiniboine Park come up and say, "I don’t like X but I do like Y." Like that.
It’s on balance. It’s not black and white.
FP: So, nobody harangues you?
Pallister: Sure. The other day I was walking down the street (to get) my hair cut. Fine.
Life goes on. I love pitching away games. (In his younger years, Pallister was a national-calibre fastball pitcher.)
FP: What happened?
Pallister: Nothing. He just said something and I smiled at him. He drove away. It goes with the job.
FP: What did he say?
Pallister: I can’t. It would be too rude. I get a sense that he wasn’t a well-read man. Let’s leave it at that.
FP: So, you don’t curse anymore now that you’re premier?
Pallister: I’m trying to temper that. I actually did get a very good, insightful email from a lady in Ontario who said she was a senior, after I said about asylum-seeking — and the situation in Manitoba — I said someone has to tell Donald Trump to stop scaring the shit out of people.
Remember when I said that? And she gave me supreme heck on that, and I think she was right. Because I set an example and I don’t want you going out and saying that, so why should I? There you go. You learn from this job.
FP: On the topic of politicians and selfies, what are your feelings on the prime minister? Your backgrounds couldn’t be more different. How do you get along?
Pallister: I think he’s a good guy. I treat him the way I would like him to treat me. I have said to him — because like every leader, there’s a danger you get surrounded by acolytes, bobbleheads telling him what he wants to hear — I’m not going to do that.
He needs somebody to tell him the truth. I do not like what he did to the health-care transfers and I’m not going to change my mind. I have six studies that say it’s dangerous and reckless and shouldn’t have been done. So I’m going to fight on that and I won’t stop. He knows that about me.
If he resents that, he should get over it. Because it will make him a better man, just as it made me a better man when I started to realize that the people who were questioning my decisions weren’t attacking me. They were just instructing me to make a better decision. Right?
You’ve got to take that. If you can’t take that you’re going to be very lonely in this job. And I’m less lonely now than I was a year ago. I’ve gotten more allies.
The prime minister has done some things I’ve really liked. I’ve said so. Does that mean our relationship is in jeopardy just because the only thing anybody ever pays attention to is our disagreements? I don’t think so.
So I think we relate to each other better now than we did when we first spoke. Because he knows where I’m coming from and he knows that I’m not going to bullshit the guy.
(He interrupts himself after cursing.)
Well, there you go. Look what you make me do.
FP: What about Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman? He’s also a selfie king. Do you get along with him?
Pallister: I get along very well with him. For the same reason. We were just getting to know each other a year-and-a-half ago, two years ago, as well.
There’s a lot more to the mayor than selfies. A very thoughtful man.
FP: OK, what are your thoughts on U.S. President Donald Trump?
Pallister: I think he’s dangerous. I think he needs — it’s ironic to say this about a president — but he needs a governor. He needs a governor on his tweeting. He needs a governor on his comments. He’s got to get some sense of control.
There’s nothing wrong with dynamic change happening — he ran on that. You can argue that he’s keeping his promises.
But he didn’t run on being totally unpredictable, disrespectful to his own team. He didn’t run on those things.
FP: 'Dangerous' is a loaded word. What do you mean? Dangerous to democracy? Dangerous to places outside of the United States?
Pallister: (Dead serious) Places beyond imagining. That’s the trouble.
FP: Where do you go from here? What’s next on your agenda?
Pallister: It’s a three-legged stool. Fix the finances. Repair the services. Rebuild the economy. So we’re working on all three simultaneously.
We fundamentally have to get our province back on track by doing these three things. And we can’t just do one of them, or one at a time.
For example, I have lots of fiscal conservatives say, "You’ve got to balance the books." Well, right, how would I do that? And they say: spend less. Where would I spend less? Well, everywhere but health. Well, health is half our budget, so...
What do I know? I know for sure I can’t spend half my budget on one thing and say I’m going to balance my books and not pay any attention to that (health care). We’ve been paying more for health care than virtually anybody else in the country and getting worse results. So we have to face that challenge and we are.
If all I cared about was being popular I sure as hell wouldn’t have tried to save health care. But I care about health care and I care about where it’s going to be next year, not just this year. So we’re making changes that many other people have made around the country but that the previous government didn’t have the courage to make. I’m proud of it.
You may say that makes me unpopular.
You know what I think about that.