Opinion

If you looked closely at Premier Brian Pallister during his online news conference on Thursday, you might have seen his heart grow three sizes.

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This article was published 3/12/2020 (196 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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If you looked closely at Premier Brian Pallister during his online news conference on Thursday, you might have seen his heart grow three sizes.

At the tail end of a message about rapid COVID-19 tests for teachers, Pallister veered into a surprising rant that included the admission he had willingly accepted the role of the Grinch this Christmas.

How he came about that is a bit of a long story.

Fallout from tough COVID measures weighs heavily on Canada's least-popular premier

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Premier Brian Pallister says he's the guy Manitobans need right now. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Premier Brian Pallister says he's the guy Manitobans need right now. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 7:00 PM Dec. 3, 2020

Calling himself "the guy who's stealing Christmas," an emotional Premier Brian Pallister told Manitobans he's OK with being unpopular, but he hopes in the years to come that they respect him for making the tough decisions that kept them safe.

"If you don't care for me, I understand. I totally do," Pallister said at the end of a long news conference Thursday, referencing a survey this week that listed his approval rating as the lowest among Canadian first ministers.

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On Tuesday, Pallister was asked why he had the lowest performance rating of any premier in a national poll. His absurd response was "people don't like COVID."

On Thursday, the Manitoba premier attempted a high-degree-of-difficulty do-over — by diving headfirst into a pool of self-pity.

According to a weepy Pallister, he is aware many Manitobans do not like him. But if they don't like him, it's because he has been forced to impose the harshest COVID-19 restrictions in the country.

He acknowledged every time a wedding or funeral is cancelled or someone is prevented from visiting a friend, opening a business or shopping, he is the guy who gets blamed.

"I'm the guy who's stealing Christmas to keep you safe," Pallister said, voice quivering with emotion.

The maudlin performance not only made for great daytime television; it also confirmed, eight months into the pandemic, the premier remains firmly in denial about the shortcomings of his performance.

For his benefit, we'll review a few facts.

Nobody likes social and economic restrictions but Manitobans have largely shown no propensity to blame the Pallister government for introducing any of them. When asked, they have overwhelmingly supported measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A Probe Research poll released in early November showed more than three-quarters of Winnipeggers strongly supported the decision to put the capital region under code red restrictions. Fifty-four per cent of respondents believed restrictions at that time (since ratcheted up) were not severe enough.

Only 10 per cent of respondents rated the restrictions as too severe.

Throughout the pandemic, Manitobans have made it clear they wanted more from Pallister — more restrictions, in place sooner, and with more generous economic supports.

Criticism, when it has arrived, has been about the failure to prepare for a second wave and what appears to be his chronic preference for controlling expenditures, rather than protecting people from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Criticism, when it has arrived, has been about the failure to prepare for a second wave and what appears to be his chronic preference for controlling expenditures, rather than protecting people from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Pallister's suggestion the restrictions in and of themselves are the source of his plummeting popularity is either delusional (if he believes what he's saying) or dishonest (if he is trying to generate sympathy and deflect criticism).

At this stage of the pandemic, it might be time to admit getting Pallister to admit his mistakes is pointless.

Particularly when there is some evidence the Progressive Conservative government is finally acknowledging some of its blind spots and missteps, through a series of recent announcements considerably more conciliatory than normal.

What makes each of these announcements so remarkable, and so welcome, is they recognize specific grievances brought to government months ago that had been largely ignored.

Over the past two weeks, it has announced a new, non-repayable grant program for businesses, pay bumps for front-line caregivers and nurses, expanded virtual consultation opportunities and sick pay for doctors in private practice, and access to rapid testing for teachers.

What makes each of these announcements so remarkable, and so welcome, is they recognize specific grievances brought to government months ago that had been largely ignored.

Doctors Manitoba lobbied for months to expand tele-medicine and to provide sick-leave pay for doctors who got COVID-19 or had to take time off to wait for test results.

The Manitoba Nurses Union had long-sought a more lasting pay bump for its members, to reflect the enormous additional burden they are facing right now caring for COVID-19 patients.

After months of complaints about the limited scope of provincial economic supports, suddenly Manitoba has one of the most generous non-repayable grant programs in the country.

Why these decisions are being made now is not entirely clear.

It is likely this sudden spate of generosity is designed to help spend some of the unallocated money from economic support programs announced in the spring. (The uptake on those programs was modest, for several reasons.)

Someone deep within the Pallister government has figured out a way of helping some people in genuine need — and doing it in a way where the premier does not have to admit he missed the mark during the first go-around.

It's no coincidence the groups targeted by these new programs have been among the most critical of the Pallister government during the pandemic.

Pallister should be congratulated for finally, thankfully, providing such meaningful support.

Just like the fictional Grinch, it appears he may have finally realized the error of his ways. Restrictions or no restrictions, it is a development all Manitobans can be thankful for.

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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