It is often very hard to find dignity when a political leader leaves politics. Whether it's a well-earned retirement, a sudden electoral defeat or a coup, outgoing political leaders all know they are going to have to listen to their successors talk about doing a better job than the person that came before them.

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This article was published 30/7/2012 (3292 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It is often very hard to find dignity when a political leader leaves politics. Whether it's a well-earned retirement, a sudden electoral defeat or a coup, outgoing political leaders all know they are going to have to listen to their successors talk about doing a better job than the person that came before them.

There are rarely hard feelings about this reality; political leaders understand that sooner or later, they all have to give up the mantel of leadership to someone who will, in the course of campaigning for the office, promise to do a better job. It's part of the nearly endless process of reinvention politicians and parties go through every time a new leader arrives.

Consider the brief public appearance Monday of newly minted Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba Leader Brian Pallister, who was officially acclaimed last weekend when no one stepped forward to run against him. It's the second time in the last 13 years the Tories have acclaimed a new leader (Stuart Murray was the other; Hugh McFadyen had to face off against Ron Schuler and Ken Waddell), a fact Pallister is trying to mitigate as best he can.

In his comments to reporters in a stiflingly hot Tory caucus room at the Manitoba legislature, Pallister had little in the way of news, or pomp, to offer. Having been denied a leadership convention, and the accompanying fuss and stress and intense media coverage, he seemed not the least bit interested in making a splash on Monday. Not a single Tory MLA joined him for his efficient news conference. No triumphant walk into a packed caucus room; no rousing applause.

Pallister is a professional, and he handled the few questions he faced with aplomb. Yes, he was disappointed he didn't have a real leadership convention to boost his profile. No, he didn't think the acclamation would haunt him. Yes, the future looks bright, both for him and for the party. No, he would not discuss specific policy pledges now or any time soon. Instead, he did what new leaders do, which is to promise to do a better job than the outgoing leader.

However, even without any details to back him up, Pallister still promised he would better his predecessor, Hugh McFadyen.

Pallister said he would make the Tory party more relevant by looking for new and dynamic ideas that would appeal to a broader slice of Manitoba society, while improving the inner workings of his party to make it more effective, both in elections and in the legislature. How he will do this is unclear. In fact, it's not even clear policy and party operations were the problem for the McFadyen-led Tories.

McFadyen started his term in 2006 promising to make the party more relevant to younger generations, while tightening party administration. The Tories had suffered through a period of financial and organizational dysfunction under Stuart Murray. By the end of his term, the party had clawed its way back to financial stability, but organizationally it was not prepared to fight a battle with the powerful NDP election machine.

However, those were not the biggest problems facing McFadyen and Murray. The truth is the identity -- or to be more specific a lack of identity -- of this once great party is the real affliction Pallister has inherited. After more than a decade in power, the Tories lost an election in 1999 and have had trouble figuring out what they stand for. The problem has been exacerbated by the NDP, a broadly based, middle-of-the-road party that erected a big tent in the 1999 election and has never looked back.

Pallister said his would be a party of new ideas, not beholden to the status quo. Without some actual new ideas on which to judge Pallister, it's hard to know whether he really means to unleash "new" ideas on the Manitoba electorate, or just rebrand the Tories as the party of new ideas, without really offering any. It's not unheard of for politicians to brand themselves as innovators and reformists without ever summoning a genuinely innovative idea to their credit.

Leadership campaigns can be marvellous opportunities for candidates to outline their vision for a new and improved party. Once again, the Tories have missed that opportunity. Pallister is promising some big things in the next few weeks that demonstrate clearly he is all about new ideas, new policies and new approaches to politics. He talked about making politics fun again and stirring the passion of voters and candidates alike. And about making the Tories once again a formidable electoral force.

There is a theory the best thing Pallister has going for him is timing. Specifically, that he has taken over at a time when it's likely the public will just lose interest in the NDP before the next election.

In that scenario, it's not necessary to actually put forward new, dynamic ideas. It's all about selling the public on the idea you're full of new ideas, even if you can't enunciate one. And then just let the electorate's dwindling interest in the NDP take care of the rest.

Regardless of ideology, we should all hope that is not what a Pallister-led Tory party is all about. With growing voter cynicism and dwindling voter turnout, this province needs the leader Pallister says he is going to be. And nothing less.

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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