Brian Pallister bristles at the suggestion that he needs to rebrand himself or his party to appeal to Winnipeg voters in the next general election.
"I am who I am, and I'm not going to hide it," says the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader, who was raised on a farm near Portage la Prairie and leads a mainly rural group of Opposition MLAs.
"I understand this province very well. I'm comfortable in any board room you put me in. I'm comfortable in any neighbourhood in this city."
Pallister, who now lives on Wellington Crescent and represents the suburban constituency of Fort Whyte, is keenly aware that the NDP may employ attack ads to try to define him as the 2016 election approaches — just as it did with his predecessor, Hugh McFadyen. But his attitude is 'bring it on.'
"The NDP is going to go on class warfare in the next election," Pallister said in a year-end interview with the Free Press. "You know it and I know it. That's their plan: he's a rural hick to the people of the city; he's a rich city guy to the people in the country. Whatever. As long as they're attacking me and not the ideas that our party is standing for they're going to lose ground just like they've been losing ground."
Right now, things are rolling Pallister's way. Greg Selinger's New Democrats are fighting a civil war. And the NDP's own polling suggests the party could be decimated in the next election, if Selinger remains as its standard bearer.
Pallister has cautioned his troops against being overly confident and to keep working hard to win voter support. For months, his predominately rural caucus — only five of 19 PC MLAs represent city constituencies — have gone door-knocking in potential swing ridings in Winnipeg. They've also participated in numerous local grassroots events. He wants his rural MLAs to be attuned to city issues even as he recruits candidates to contest urban ridings.
"One of my colleagues, who is from just out of town, said to me the other day, 'You're trying to make me more urban.' I said I want to make you 'rurban'. I don't want to change you. You're a rural guy, but you've got to understand the city of Winnipeg."
Some observers feel McFadyen brought the Conservative party too far to the left during the 2011 election campaign. He tried to 'out-NDP the NDP,' as some put it, with expensive campaign promises intended to appeal to city voters. Pallister is eschewing that strategy.
Yet, when it was suggested that his approach in 2016 might be simply to run as a small-c conservative who would manage the province's books well, he offered this response:
"You're working on the assumption that Tommy Douglas didn't care about balanced budgets. I don't think you're right. (Former Saskatchewan premier) Roy Romanow cared. Jack Layton cared deeply. I spent a lot of time with Jack when we were in Parliament together. These are people who understand fundamental money management principles very well and epitomized them actually in their opportunities to lead."
The following are some other thoughts by Pallister gleaned from a 45-minute interview:
On when, if elected premier, he would reduce the PST back to seven per cent:
"In our first mandate. That's the responsible way to do this. Different political people than I might have said we're going to run on dropping the PST immediately. That would be a very easy thing to do, but it would be the wrong thing to do."
On how Greg Selinger is being treated by some members of the NDP:
"I am not going to say that Greg Selinger is the best leader I've ever seen. But he deserved better from his own people than what he got. And I don't admire disloyalty in people, and there is no justification for the way in which Mr. Selinger was treated. But my greater concern is the way Manitobans are being treated by this imaginary rebellion and this phony leadership contest that's ensued as a result."
On improving upon the number of female PC candidates in the next general election (the Tories ran women in only 12 of the province's 57 constituencies in 2011):
"It's an imbalance. Esther (his wife) and I are the parents of two beautiful young women and we have raised them to understand they have to compete as equals in our society. That being said, I have inherited a caucus imbalance (four women and 15 men) so let's be real. I have four female members elected in the PC party, two of whom are retiring. So I've focused on meeting as many women as I can, in group settings initially, where people can just come and explore the possibility of getting involved in our party. But getting involved in a way — not necessarily as candidates — that allows them to participate in the manner they're most comfortable with... I've met with dozens of women and invited them to consider the career change — and this is a career change."
On whether he has set a target on the number of female candidates the Conservatives will field in 2016:
"I would not be happy if we had less than 25 per cent female candidates. I don't want to put a quota out there, but I guess I just did. I just think that we have to continue to reach out and we have to involve more women in our party. Every party deals with this, as I've said before, but I think especially it's incumbent upon me to do that outreach work. I've met with dozens of different women from around the province and many in the city who are currently considering whether or not to run for us. And I do hope that they make that choice. But I respect the fact that it's a difficult choice for people to make."
On the criticism he took for appearing to be missing in action during the 2014 flood:
"I was at a family wedding in Alberta in July, the first week of July was when the unprecedented rainfall occurred one day in parts of western Manitoba. But prior to that time I had visited every potential flood area — some of which had been flooding — in the province. But I didn't take a film crew with me. I guess I'm learning as I go. I suppose I have to tweet you guys every time I go to something so you know..."
On using social media to get his message out:
"Obviously, I'm learning about this stuff. I think we all are. (Mayor Naheed) Nenshi in Calgary obviously used it to effect. Other campaigns have. I'm just reading a book called The Audacity to Win. It's written by David Plouffe, who was the campaign manager for Obama in his first campaign. What David says is that it's a tool, but it's a tool of the trade. It's not the trade. And the trade remains neighbourhoods and getting to those neighbourhoods and asking for support at the doors of those neighbourhoods. Both these things are important but I would not want to rely solely on electronic (social) media as a means of letting people know that we really want to have their support."
On whether he updates his own Twitter profile:
"I write most of my messages. I dictate them. I don't type them into the machine. I like to use the (Twitter). I am told that I have more than twice as many followers as the premier, so I'm pretty happy about that." (A recent check found that Selinger had 6,400 followers compared with Pallister's 2,189.)
On what would get axed first if he became premier:
"Communications staff. We've doubled the size of communications staff in this province. And they aren't communicators at all. They actually block the flow of information... There are many more ways that we can reduce expenditures intelligently without affecting or diluting the ability to deliver front-line services. Such as advertising budgets that have doubled in size. There's no apparent reason for that unless it's to, I guess, influence Manitobans that monopolies are doing a great job for them. The last time I looked Manitoba Hydro or Liquor and Lotteries weren't competing with anyone..."
On reaching out to organized labour:
"I'm a former union rep (with the Manitoba Teachers' Society). I'm a believer in organized labour. I believe that people should have the right to organize, but I don't think the province should be run by unions. I don't think education should be run by the Manitoba Teachers Society, that government should be run by the MGEU (Manitoba Government and General Employees Union). That doesn't mean those organizations don't have a viable, important role. They do. But if they become lackeys to a provincial government they're not going to fulfil their role..."
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.