Brian Pallister will likely be the shortest-serving two-term premier in recent Manitoba history, should his government get re-elected Sept. 10.
Pallister, who officially called an early election Monday, appears to want to leave politics sooner rather than later. It’s the only logical explanation for his decision to ignore the province’s fixed-date election (which was scheduled for Oct. 6, 2020) and go to the polls a year sooner. Pallister is using a loophole in the election law to call an early vote; and he’s doing it strictly for personal reasons.
Like all fixed-date election laws in Canada, there’s a clause in Manitoba’s Elections Act that allows for an early election should a government lose the confidence of the house (which happened in Manitoba in 1988). The clause exists to ensure the lieutenant-governor can dissolve the legislative assembly and call an election if a government is defeated on a non-confidence motion. That’s the section Pallister is using to call an early vote.
"Nothing in this section affects the powers of the lieutenant-governor, including the power to dissolve the legislature at the lieutenant-governor’s discretion," reads Sec 49.1(1) of the Elections Act.
Pallister says he’s calling the election because he doesn’t want a 2020 race to interfere with Manitoba’s 150th birthday celebration.
It’s a disingenuous excuse, especially since a fall 2020 election would have occurred months after Manitoba’s May 12 birthday.
Fixed-date elections are designed to help level the playing field among political parties and candidates. They exist to prevent governments from gaining an advantage over the timing of an election. But they only work in the parliamentary system if the government of the day follows not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of it.
Pallister is not breaking the law by ignoring the fixed-date election. However, he is clearly violating the spirit of the legislation. He’s abusing the intent of 49.1(1), and he’s doing it for his own personal benefit.
It’s not like an early election gives the Tories an electoral advantage. In fact, one could argue the party would have a better chance of smoothing over some of its health-care problems if it waited a year for reforms to settle in.
Overall, there’s no real difference; the Tories will almost certainly win a strong second-term majority whether the election is held this year or in 2020.
Which leaves Pallister’s personal timeline as the only real explanation.
The premier, who turned 65 last month, has been in politics on and off for 27 years. He was first elected as a Manitoba MLA in a byelection in 1992. He became government services minister in the Filmon government in 1995. He moved on to federal politics in 1997. Pallister returned to Manitoba politics in 2012, after winning the Tory leadership race. He won the premier’s chair in 2016.
If Pallister steps down two to three years from now, he will have been in politics close to 30 years. That’s a long time. And it appears he’s making his retirement plans.
Pallister surely wants to be around when Manitoba balances the books. Everything his government is doing now is geared toward achieving that goal. Eliminating the deficit will be the premier’s crowning achievement. He wants that, and the PST cut, to be his legacy.
But once a balanced budget is introduced — probably in spring 2022 — there’s little reason for Pallister to stay on. He will likely step down shortly thereafter. It’s easier for him to do so 2½ years into a mandate than it would be 1½ after an October 2020 election.
Naturally, he would never admit to this timeline publicly.
Doing so would make him a lame-duck premier, which isn’t how any first minister wants to serve out the final two or three years in office. But if he does step down in 2022, he would be a six-year, two-term premier — by far the shortest of any recent Manitoba leader serving at least two terms in office.
We’ll find out soon enough if that’s the real reason Pallister ignored Manitoba’s fixed-date election law.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.