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Opinion

Pallister power play puts headlines on the bench

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister during his year-end press conference in his office at the Manitoba Legislative building, Tuesday morning.

191210 - Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister during his year-end press conference in his office at the Manitoba Legislative building, Tuesday morning. 191210 - Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

Breaking news: Premier Brian Pallister tweaked his back moving firewood.

It should be noted Pallister is among the most fit and athletic 65-year-olds in the province. A high achiever in basketball and baseball, he still carries himself with a decidedly athletic gait. And a tweaked back is something most adult men can empathize with.

It was pretty much the only newsworthy thing to come out of the premier's year-end news conference Tuesday — pretty much as planned.

This year, Pallister cancelled individual, one-on-one interviews with media outlets and opted for a mass news conference in his festively decorated office at the Manitoba legislature.

Why would the premier, in Grinch-like fashion, take away an interview most news organizations genuinely look forward to and replace it with a packed free-for-all?

The strategy: instead of going through the grind of multiple 30-minute interviews with individual news organizations that can use the time to dig deep on the issues of the day, do one 45-minute conference where many topics are covered but none in-depth.

The end result is a steady stream of low-level stories, none of any consequence.

Manitoba needs to produce more jobs and do a better job of training people for job openings. Manitoba's green plan is among the most aggressive in the country and doesn't need a carbon tax. Tory MLAs can't wait to see the results of a review of the K-12 public education system. Ottawa should make it easier for provinces to build things such as the Lake Manitoba flood outlet, which is currently hung up in regulatory review.

Other than the detail about the premier's ailing back, the only potentially intriguing story was how Pallister continued to refuse comment on whether he'll stick around to run in another election. He expressed incredulity anyone would still ask him, but pivoted quickly to other issues, thereby avoiding a definitive answer.

The end result is a steady stream of low-level stories, none of any consequence.

You can bet the question will be asked again this time in 2020. If he's still on the job.

However, the fact Pallister will likely retire before the next provincial election but won't admit it is hardly top news. It is, most definitely, the epitome of the same old same old.

How will this year compare to the past three, when Pallister granted individual interviews?

A quick scan shows the one-on-one interviews granted in 2018 resulted in several big stories, including: the premier suggesting he might end layoff protection for provincial civil servants; a fairly definitive tell that a snap election was coming in 2019; confirmation a freeze on support to municipalities would continue in the next budget; and how, faced with meth and climate change crises, the decision to eject Tory MLA Cliff Graydon from caucus was Pallister's toughest moment of the year.

All in all, a pretty good haul; a lot more than will be produced by this year's group setting.

In some respects, it's not hard to figure out why Pallister would go this route. Doing multiple, year-end sessions is boring, often repetitive and sometimes frustrating. Not every journalist has the expertise or knowledge to ask questions that can sustain the interest of the interview subject.

However, there are benefits for those politicians who can endure such sit-downs.

Year-end interviews are opportunities to raise concerns with media about stories published over the past year or to clarify issues they think may have been muddied, and to influence relationships with journalists to ensure, if nothing else, you get a fair shake in the future.

It is also an opportunity to engage in some effective pandering.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister during his year-end press conference in his office at the Manitoba Legislative building, Tuesday morning.

191210 - Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister during his year-end press conference in his office at the Manitoba Legislative building, Tuesday morning. 191210 - Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

News organizations love to trumpet an interview with a political leader as an "exclusive" or at least "face-to-face." Even if everyone is getting one, being granted a sit-down confirms a journalist's status in the press gallery. The pandering may not stop an unflattering story, but it has been known to soothe or even distract individual journalists from time to time.

You can say what you want about Pallister, but he does not pander to journalists. Some of his core supporters will celebrate that fact, but it also means the premier does not attempt to cultivate any kind of meaningful relationships. His estrangement with the media does not serve him well.

Pallister can be quick-tempered and dismissive when he believes he is being unfairly treated. This typically turns small, discomforting stories into major sources of grief. (For supporting evidence, Google search "Pallister" and "Costa Rica.")

A face-to-face, year-end interview is — when all is said and done — not a lot to ask a political leader. It's boring and repetitive, but it is also one of those moments when an elected official answers questions on a wide variety of issues to help inform the citizenry. In other words, an important part of the democratic system.

Those of us in the news media wish Pallister good will and peace, and less back pain in the new year. And perhaps when he is feeling better, he might even be able to sit for a few more one-on-one interviews.

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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