Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/2/2019 (336 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
What, you may ask, is going on behind the scenes of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba?
Late last week, we learned — in a rather indirect fashion — Premier Brian Pallister had once again removed another of his partisan appointments from a high-profile position on the board of a Manitoba Crown corporation.
This time, the object of his consternation was Polly Craik, a longtime opinion leader within the urban wing of the PC party and now the former chairwoman of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp.
Craik’s ouster was not announced publicly, per se. Last week, there was a news release announcing two new appointments to the MLL board. However, tucked into the fine details of the order in council notice confirming the appointments was a mention Craik’s position on the board had been revoked.
In the world of partisan politics, when a government releases a high-profile appointee in such a underhanded manner, without a formal public announcement, along with some perfunctory comments about "the government thanks the former chair for her years of service to the taxpayers of Manitoba," you can bet there is trouble.
"Governance" is the polite word everyone is using in this case.
Last week, Craik told the Free Press there had been a "difference of opinion" with the premier on "governance issues." She said she had been appointed "with the understanding that the board provided oversight and was responsible for the financial direction of the corporation."
Although she did not say it out loud, the clear implication was the premier wanted to take more of a direct hand in MLL finances.
Party and government sources confirmed there was pushback from the Craik-led board against several broad policy directives issued by the premier’s office. In particular, sources confirmed government decisions to launch a comprehensive review of gaming policy without advance warning to MLL, and there were concerns about Pallister’s decision to stop a $60-million expansion of the Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg.
MLL had just completed a $15-million renovation at the Club Regent property in 2014, when it announced new plans in 2015 for a 150-room boutique hotel and two new restaurants. Although the plan germinated under the former NDP government, sources confirm the Craik-led Tory board was bullish on the idea to help Club Regent compete in the gambling market.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was not shared by Pallister, who, late last year, made it clear the project could not go ahead.
It was not the first time Pallister made it clear to MLL capital projects announced under the former NDP government were non-starters. Previously, the premier directed MLL to abandon plans to retrofit a downtown office building to serve as a consolidated headquarters. He was also instrumental in a major downsizing of a new Liquor Mart outlet in the recently opened True North Square development in downtown Winnipeg.
Although Craik positioned herself as a willing party to those decisions, the manner in which they and other directives were being communicated to the board was a source of concern, the sources said. Craik and the board were weary of decisions coming from the legislative building on Broadway with little or no discussion or warning.
That was certainly the case with a provincewide review of all gaming activities announced in November 2018, which came as some surprise to the MLL board. That surprise turned to concern, when the Pallister government used the review as the excuse to stop the Regent expansion.
Beyond the specifics of these issues, there is another dynamic at play: the profound split between urban and rural members of the Manitoba PC party.
Pallister may live in River Heights and represent the Winnipeg riding of Fort Whyte, but for most city Tories, he is and will always be the man from Portage la Prairie and somewhat of an outsider.
When Pallister served in the 1990s-era cabinets of then-premier Gary Filmon, he was largely kept on the outside of the most important decisions of government. To this day, Pallister tells stories about how he helped forge some of the Filmon government’s most impactful policies — such as the balanced budget law — only to see other members of cabinet take the credit.
When he became premier in 2016, Pallister tried to extend an olive branch to the so-called "Tuxedo Tories" with whom he had battled during the Filmon years. He appointed financier Sandy Riley to head up the board at Manitoba Hydro and installed Craik — who was considered by many to be a potential rival when Pallister ran for the Tory leadership in 2012 — at MLL.
The Riley decision came back to haunt Pallister almost immediately.
Although Riley did take a hard line on Hydro expenses — cutting 900 jobs and trimming operating costs — he also made several incendiary statements. When push came to shove, and it did, Pallister offered Riley a chance to move to another Crown corporation; Riley responded by resigning, along with the majority of the board.
Some will criticize Pallister for reaching too deeply into the day-to-day operations of Crown corporations. And while they are supposed to enjoy a measure of independence, it is not wrong for a premier to set broad policy parameters. Ultimately, the Crown corporation buck stops at Pallister’s desk.
However, he continues to make life hard for his political appointees by not signalling policy directives in a timely fashion, and with enough context, to avoid conflict. Pallister has the authority to issue these directives, but that does not absolve him of giving his appointees a heads-up every once in a while.
The bigger mistake may have been trying to placate the city Tories. Bringing in Riley and Craik seemed, at first blush, to be a great idea. Unfortunately, it appears neither appreciated the my-way-or-the-highway sensibility Pallister brings to many of his decisions.
The premier has now alienated some of the most influential Winnipeggers in his party ranks, something he clearly doesn’t need as he tries to secure a second majority in 2020.
It is nearly impossible to see Pallister losing the next election. But beyond that vote, he may find less support and little patience from opinion leaders in his own party in the most important political battleground in the province.
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.