December 16, 2017

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Opinion

Pallister unplugged is bombastic, unrelenting and awkward

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Premier Brian Pallister delivers his ‘State of the Province’ at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon in the RBC Convention Centre Thursday.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister delivers his ‘State of the Province’ at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon in the RBC Convention Centre Thursday.

It was, by most conventional measurements, an unusual speech.

Premier Brian Pallister's annual State of the Province address to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce was awkward, amusing and, ultimately, puzzling.

The awkward part came when he started off his address by thanking chamber chairwoman Johanna Hurme, a renowned Winnipeg architect, for "dressing up" and "for those heels." Perhaps sensing the inappropriateness, the premier moved quickly to a medley of his greatest anecdotes and sayings.

The speech was delivered without script or teleprompter. Think of it as Pallister unplugged.

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It was, by most conventional measurements, an unusual speech.

Premier Brian Pallister's annual State of the Province address to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce was awkward, amusing and, ultimately, puzzling.

The awkward part came when he started off his address by thanking chamber chairwoman Johanna Hurme, a renowned Winnipeg architect, for "dressing up" and "for those heels." Perhaps sensing the inappropriateness, the premier moved quickly to a medley of his greatest anecdotes and sayings.

The speech was delivered without script or teleprompter. Think of it as Pallister unplugged.

There were some laughs, and some tender moments, particularly when he thanked his wife Esther for helping him through difficult times following his well-publicized hike-in-the-desert-gone-wrong in New Mexico at the same time that she was grieving the death of her own mother. There is no doubt, it has been a tough fall for the Pallister family.

However, even though he was clearly traumatized by the New Mexican mishap, and continues to deal with the pain and discomfort of not having his left hand available for simple tasks, Pallister has lost nothing of the bombast that has distinguished his first two years in government.

The rest of his speech was a torrent of unverifiable hyperbole, grand political and economic claims, and an often repeated, ambitious-to-a-fault pledge that he is on a mission to make Manitoba the most improved province in Canada. Whatever that means.

There was some news but it was muted. Pallister called on two business leaders - Dave Angus and Barb Gamey - to "lead the government's efforts to craft a bold and modern approach to economic development that will address today's challenges and take advantage of tomorrow's opportunities."

This sounds a lot like the mandate of the Premier's Enterprise Team, a group of business leaders brought together shortly after the Tories won the 2016 election to, as a news release noted at the time, "provide advice and recommendations for job creation and economic development across Manitoba." Pallister insisted the enterprise team was only "advisory" while the new two-person task force will be focused on coming up with specific actions.

It's hard not to ask: if the enterprise team isn't focused on coming up with specific actions for the government to improve economic development, what was heck is it doing?

This announcement is a prime example of the great weakness of the Pallister government: a propensity to take small, almost insignificant events or issues and blow them up into either the "greatest" or "worst" things of all time. Most of these claims are impossible to prove in empirical terms; journalists have come to greet them as things the premier believes in spite of an inability to prove them.

The chamber of commerce speech did establish one incontrovertible fact: the premier's harrowing experience in New Mexico has not changed his world view or his attitude towards his current job. He remains as hyperbolic and fiercely stubborn as he was before he launched out into the desert.

Case in point. Last week, the premier managed to wade again into the political maelstrom surrounding his Costa Rican vacation property and the amount of time he spends there.

In annual conflict of interest filings required of every MLA, Pallister included details of two corporations he owns in Costa Rica, one of which owns his home and the other that owns vehicles he uses when in Central America. The details were included in an appendix labelled "voluntary disclosure."

This was necessary because Pallister insists that he has no legal obligation to provide this information, even though he did confirm publicly his ownership of the two entities. His insistence on including them as "voluntary" disclosures - a device the premier created to drive home his point - is a trimph of stubborness over political pragmatism.

Largely as a result of the spectre of impropriety stirred up by the opposition NDP, Pallister has dramatically reduced his trips to Costa Rica. Yes, it's largely much ado about nothing, but it's also something the premier should avoid having to discuss at all costs.

Costa Rica, and in particular his past decisions to mislead people about when and for how long he was out of the country, has become code for concerns about the premier's work ethic and his personal integrity. Pallister may believe the "voluntary" label is some sort of moral victory, but all it has done in this instance was guarantee he had to answer more questions about his getaways in tropical paradise.

Pallister's speech came on the last day of the current sitting of the Manitoba Legislature. MLAs will not gather again until next spring, at which time the provincial budget will be tabled. Without a note of exaggeration, that will be the moment the rubber (brags, outrageous claims and unprovable assertions) meet a certain degree of reality.

The books should show modest but important progress in reducing the deficit. It won't be enough to set the stage for Pallister's pledge to reduce the PST by one point in 2020, but it certainly will be a step towards a balanced budget. And at this time, in this economy, that will be no small accomplishment. However, there will be a cost to this progress. Government revenues are still soft, and Pallister continues to embrace austerity as his sole path to fiscal salvation. That means Manitobans are going to get less government, a condition that will be celebrated by some, lamented by others.

It's been a helluva fall for the premier and his family. He deserves some rest and relaxation - at a location of the premier's choosing, of course - before he has to get back to work. Because when he does return, the job is only going to get tougher.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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