Opinion

It is no small irony that during the Progressive Conservative government's much-vaunted pre-election blackout on government communications, Premier Brian Pallister has been seen and heard much more often than he was before the lid came down on news conferences and press releases.

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This article was published 4/7/2019 (816 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is no small irony that during the Progressive Conservative government's much-vaunted pre-election blackout on government communications, Premier Brian Pallister has been seen and heard much more often than he was before the lid came down on news conferences and press releases.

Case in point: Pallister has been on a non-stop rant about how unfairly he has been treated by the media reporting on the scrap between Manitoba Public Insurance and private brokers over the future of online Autopac services. MPI wants to operate online transactions, while brokers are demanding that they control all future online transactions. Tens of millions of dollars in commissions paid to brokers is at stake.

Pallister delves into NDP record in brokers-MPI spat

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"If you want to make an allegation of favouritism," Premier Brian Pallister told reporters, "let's take a look at history." (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)						</p>
"If you want to make an allegation of favouritism," Premier Brian Pallister told reporters, "let's take a look at history." (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 7:00 PM Jul. 4, 2019

Premier Brian Pallister, stung by suggestions he and his government favour private brokers in their negotiations with Manitoba Public Insurance, vowed Thursday to stand up for consumers.

He also released several 2012 government briefing notes, from when the NDP was in power, to show his political opponents had been generous to private insurance brokers in the past.

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As this battle has raged on, Pallister has been putting in a lot of extra time and effort to convince Manitobans that neither he nor his government has been unduly influenced by brokers. How much extra time and effort? In the last week alone, Pallister has done three interviews about the Autopac story.

In late June, Pallister granted a rare interview with the Free Press to deny allegations he is in the pocket of the insurance brokers. "I don't think there is a fair argument to be made that there is... an implicit agreement that (brokers) get whatever they want from me or anyone in my government."

Pallister followed up those comments with another interview on Wednesday of this week with Free Press national reporter Dylan Robertson. Pallister said allegations of favouritism are "unfounded and wrong," and "not supported by the facts."

"I don't like being accused of cronyism because my record demonstrates, very clearly, that I will stand up for Manitobans strongly on things that benefit them," Pallister said.

Premier Brian Pallister denies claims of cronyism: 'Come on, man'

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Premier Brian Pallister  disputes the allegation that because he continues to own a licenced insurance agency, he is predisposed to support other private brokers.
Premier Brian Pallister disputes the allegation that because he continues to own a licenced insurance agency, he is predisposed to support other private brokers.

Posted: 7:00 PM Jun. 26, 2019

When it comes to the simmering feud between Manitoba Public Insurance and private insurance brokers, Premier Brian Pallister would like all Manitobans to know one important thing.

Neither he nor his government are "for sale" to anyone.

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On Thursday, Pallister granted a third interview in less than a week with the Free Press and the Canadian Press in which he attempted to put the blame for the lucrative commission contract between MPI and brokers squarely on the former NDP government.

It's patently apparent the premier is deeply concerned about this story. However, in his rush to defend himself, he is doing nothing to dispel several confirmed facts.

First and foremost, when you take into account all available information, including a trove of internal correspondence from MPI, there is little doubt his government politically interfered in the inner workings of MPI to the benefit of brokers.

That correspondence revealed efforts by the Pallister government to discourage MPI from creating its own online portal that would largely bypass private brokers for most Autopac products and services. The move online could, MPI argued, save Autopac customers tens of millions of dollars by freeing the Crown corporation from paying commissions to brokers. If you stop MPI from moving most transactions online, the principal beneficiary is the brokers.

The second inescapable fact is that, notwithstanding the premier's protestations, he does appear to be in a conflict of interest.

Insurance brokers group draws annual $250-K subsidy from MPI: documents

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister

Posted: 7:00 PM Jul. 3, 2019

The lobby group that represents the province's insurance brokers has received more than $2 million in operating subsidies from Manitoba Public Insurance since 2011, the Free Press has learned.

The Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba receives a $250,000 annual subsidy, payable at the beginning of every year.

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It is well-known that Pallister is a self-made millionaire thanks to the careful management of his family business, part of which sells insurance products that do not currently include Autopac. Pallister has argued that because his family business does not sell Autopac, he is not in a conflict of interest. With due respect, that is not a hair that this premier gets to split in his favour.

He remains a licensed insurance broker in this province, even if he is not selling or advising his clients on insurance products while he is in politics. It is ludicrous to suggest there is no conflict of interest when he is a chartered member of the same industry that is at the heart of the dispute with MPI.

The last, and arguably most important fact that the premier seems unable to acknowledge is that allowing MPI to free itself from the shackles of its agreement with private brokers would greatly benefit vehicle owners and drivers.

There was a time when the expansion of Autopac services available from brokers, particularly licence renewals, was a huge improvement for customers. But as online transactions have become more commonplace, it no longer makes sense to force people to visit a broker in person to renew their insurance or licence.

Premier Brian Pallister granted a third interview in less than a week with the Free Press and the Canadian Press Thursday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)</p></p>

Premier Brian Pallister granted a third interview in less than a week with the Free Press and the Canadian Press Thursday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

There is little doubt an MPI-operated online portal for basic Autopac transactions — new policies, renewals of both vehicle insurance and licences, changes to coverage — is a better approach. More complex transactions, such as the transfer of vehicle registration or five-year licence renewals that require new photos, should continue to be done through brokers. For the vast majority of interactions with Autopac, a single online window is the way to go.

It doesn't really matter why Pallister is mucking around in MPI operations. What he needs to acknowledge is that, given his inherent conflict of interest, MPI must be left to determine its own future. Any other concerns, including the need to prop up an industry with which he has more than a passing familiarity, need to be set aside.

The best interest of Autopac customers is directly in conflict with the best interest of private brokers. The premier may not agree, but his strenuous attempts to convince people he isn't being influenced by brokers is doing harm to MPI customers.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

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.

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