November 21, 2019

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Election call puts spotlight on Pallister's future

Opinion

With a rousing pre-game speech and thunderous applause on the south lawn of the Manitoba legislature, it seemed increasingly obvious this election is likely to be the last time voters get to pass judgement on Premier Brian Pallister.

That may seem to be an extraneous thing to bring up on the day Pallister visited Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon and officially kicked-off the province's 42nd general election campaign. And yet, it's hard to ignore the reality, all things considered, it will be good — for both the party and the man — if he wins his second majority mandate and then starts planning his retirement.

That is not a comment directly on anything Pallister has accomplished to date, or may accomplish in a second term he is almost certain to win.

it's hard to ignore the reality, all things considered, it will be good — for both the party and Brian Pallister — if he wins his second majority mandate and then starts planning his retirement. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

it's hard to ignore the reality, all things considered, it will be good — for both the party and Brian Pallister — if he wins his second majority mandate and then starts planning his retirement. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

It does not dismiss the accomplishments he is entitled to claim: downward pressure on the deficit; cutting the PST. Instead, it's a reflection on a political leader who, in his first three years as first minister, has tempted the political gods by overseeing what is easily the most unorthodox government in Manitoba political history.

In a province that has always rewarded the slow and steady, Pallister is arguably the most aggressive and least patient premier in its history. He has a quick temper and a complete absence of delayed gratification. He would rather pick a fight than seek a compromise. He appears to have little deference for convention, diplomacy or the normal rules of engagement in Canadian politics.

As premier, he was roasted for spending too much time at his vacation property in Costa Rica after — wait for it — facing the same criticism when he was opposition leader.

At a time when most non-Indigenous politicians were talking about reconciliation, Pallister provoked with awkward comments about night hunting and dropped the gloves with the Manitoba Metis Federation, an entity that had been treated with absolute deference by the NDP and Tory administrations of the past.

If he's not thinking about getting out, he might want to think about picking fewer fights. Politicians cannot go on forever by dropping the gloves every time someone looks at you funny.

On a recent trip to France, Pallister snubbed veterans when he bypassed ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He has bloodied noses at Winnipeg city hall, and sparred with public-sector unions and health-care professionals.

If you look at the most successful premiers, you will see leaders who were more measured, strategic and restrained in almost all aspects. Pallister is not a leader built from that mould. Think of a much taller, much more athletic version of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and you'll be at least in the right ballpark.

As such, you have a leader who has not only packed a decade's worth of conflict and stress into little more than three years in office, he's also tempted political fate. If he's not thinking about getting out, he might want to think about picking fewer fights. Politicians cannot go on forever by dropping the gloves every time someone looks at you funny.

In a province that has always rewarded the slow and steady, Pallister is arguably the most aggressive and least patient premier in its history. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In a province that has always rewarded the slow and steady, Pallister is arguably the most aggressive and least patient premier in its history. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The strongest signal he may realize the end is near is a 2019 campaign platform distinguished only by its modesty. It's a five-point plan built mostly on things already accomplished or at least started in his first term. This is about tying up loose ends, checking boxes and cementing legacies.

His 2020 tax rollback plan involves the indexing of the basic personal exemption and income tax brackets (already implemented). A health-care funding guarantee (with specific details to follow) is a clear attempt to use political rhetoric to trump accounting and free the Tories from allegation they are cutting health services.

His performance Monday spoke volumes about the stage Pallister occupies in his career path: understated, solid but unambitious.

It's a platform for an election where he and his party should not have to work that hard to get re-elected. As such, the platform is uninspiring and vague enough to allow him to pursue the one accomplishment left on his original to-do list: balance the budget.

Pallister has always made it clear balancing the budget is the raison d'etre of his political ambitions. It's also something well within reach in the first two years of a new mandate.

So, let's look ahead to the fall of 2021: that spring, Pallister introduces his second budget surplus, and signals income tax cuts to come. The hospital reorganization that burned so brightly at the latter stages of his first term is mostly complete, and the critics long since exhausted. The provincial civil service has been pistol-whipped into submission.

At some point that fall, Pallister will enter the Manitoba legislature, sit at his seat in the first row of the east side of the chamber, and realize he's just one news conference away from the denouement of his political career.

It will be that moment when he realizes there is nothing left to do, and he can tell the journalists and opposition critics alike they won't have Brian Pallister to kick around any more.

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.

Read full biography

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