Defiant and combative, Brian Pallister’s early election gamble pays off

Canada World

Brian Pallister surprised next to nobody on Tuesday, with CBC News projecting he has won a second term as Manitoba’s premier — a victory that appears to be more a testament to the Progressive Conservative leader’s accomplishments than personal popularity.

Pallister’s defiant, take-no-prisoners approach to governance made enemies during his first term; he’s been involved in fights with other levels of government, civil servants and those opposed to his government’s sweeping health-care changes.

More than half of Manitobans, in fact, don’t approve of his performance as premier, recent polling suggests, and yet the re-election of a man who has repeatedly said politics shouldn’t be a popularity contest, and his government, was never really in doubt.

The record will show Pallister is an unpopular premier who made difficult — and, supporters argue, necessary — decisions, and enough Manitobans accepted his austerity-minded playbook to give him another mandate.

Shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. CT, supporters and many of Pallister’s candidates gathered in a Winnipeg hotel ballroom garnished with balloons, a selfie station and blue spotlights to celebrate what CBC News projects will be a second consecutive majority government.

The crowd was joyous, with loud cheers erupting when TV networks made declarations of PC wins.

The referendum on Pallister’s government happened a year earlier than required by law. Pallister offered a number of reasons for ordering an early summer election, eventually saying he accomplished most of what he set out to do and needed a new mandate.

Pallister, 65, utilized a classic front-runner’s strategy, making mostly modest pledges. He vowed to build upon the work his government had already done, with new promises to eliminate the provincial sales tax on a few purchases such as home insurance, and to build more schools.

He said he’d do away with restrictions on Sunday and holiday shopping, and surprised observers with a pledge to start phasing out education property taxes, which his party estimated would eventually save the average Winnipeg family $2,000 a year.

On the campaign trail, the party tried to portray him as warm and kind, as opposed to the combative image he often gives off. A TV ad playing up his rural roots and family connections tried to soften that image.

The party was calculated in scheduling Pallister’s appearances. He skipped all but one public debate, focusing instead on telephone town halls that were only accessible if the Tories called you, and an in-person tour to all 57 constituencies. 

Pallister waves as he enters the lieutenant-governor’s home on Aug. 12, ahead of the call for Tuesday’s election. (John Woods/The Canadian Press )

Fiscal house in order

Pallister built a government, after his 2016 election, that insisted time and again the NDP left a mess after 17 years in power, and it was up to him and his team to pick up the mop. 

By many measures, he was successful. He’s charted a course that he says will wipe out a deficit that was approaching $1 billion under the NDP, while finding the means for a promised one percentage point cut to the PST.

The measures the Progressive Conservatives took were sometimes unpopular, though. His government closed three of Winnipeg’s six emergency departments, saying significant restructuring was needed to deal with the highest wait times in the country.

Pallister walks to the podium on June 19, to announce the date of the election. He was joined by, from left, candidate Audrey Gordon and MLAs Cathy Cox, Derek Johnson, Colleen Mayer and Rochelle Squires. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The PCs also froze the wages of public servants, ordered Crown corporations to cut staff and allowed for hikes to post-secondary tuition.

Pallister’s relationship with the federal government and Winnipeg’s mayor is strained. The entire board of Manitoba Hydro, save for Tory MLA Cliff Graydon, resigned en masse when they said they couldn’t get a meeting with Pallister. He’s fought in court with the Manitoba Metis Federation for quashing multimillion-dollar deals, and with public sector unions for instituting a wage freeze.

Pallister admits his government’s cost-cutting hasn’t come easily. He’s referred in past to what he describes as the courage his government needed to act — courage, he argues, the NDP lacked.

While many say reining in the province’s finances was necessary, critics have said his government has been focused on the bottom line above all else. That focus has came at the expense of the front-line services he vowed to protect, opponents say, including in the health-care sector, where workers have complained of staffing shortages and unsustainable workloads.

When he speaks, Pallister references his upbringing on a small farm and how those experiences shaped him. He grew up outside Portage la Prairie, Man., to a father who was a farmer and a mother who was a school teacher. Money was tight, he says. Pallister, who now stands six-foot-eight, says he was bullied for his lanky frame.

He went on to Brandon University, where he studied to be a teacher, his first career, and played basketball at Brandon University. He later founded an insurance business in which he made his fortune and now has a vacation home in Costa Rica, where he’s been criticized for spending too much time while in office.

Pallister walks towards the podium where he delivered a keynote speech during a meeting of the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on in January 2017. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Pallister entered politics in 1992 and went on to serve as the minister of government services under then-premier Gary Filmon, before leaving provincial politics for Ottawa. He was elected to the House of Commons three times, between 1997 to 2008, and served as a parliamentary secretary.

He returned to provincial politics in 2012 when he ran unopposed for leadership of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives.

Pallister capitalized on the growing unpopularity of the NDP government when he was heralded into government in 2016 with 40 of 57 seats — the largest majority government in Manitoba history. His party won over suburban voters and took longstanding NDP seats, such as Thompson and Brandon East, in that election.

While there has been speculation that the early election call may be tied to his planned retirement, Pallister has officially given no indication that he plans to leave politics anytime soon — or soften his sometimes combative approach.

“I want to know that I can look in the mirror and know that I’ve done the right thing, not the easy thing,” he said in an interview with Information Radio‘s Marcy Markusa last week.

“Nobody likes to be disliked, but I learned a long time ago that if you want to be liked and the price is not doing the right thing, then you made the wrong decision.”

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