Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister intends to leave office Wednesday and have the Tory caucus select an interim leader.
Pallister, who pronounced his plan to step down earlier this month, said he has chosen to leave well before the Progressive Conservative leadership vote on October 30.
He says part of the reason for the move is a desire to ensure the race doesn’t become divisive.
“The dangers of not leaving [this week] are that false allegations will be made about me trying to influence the outcome [of the leadership vote],” Pallister said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“And I have not, in any way, shape or form,” he said.
“I have only spoken two weeks ago to my cabinet and caucus and said, ‘I will be neutral. I wish you well. I would encourage you to make sure that this is a contest among friends.”‘
Thus far, former health minister Heather Stefanson, ex-member of Parliament Shelly Glover and Tory backbencher Shannon Martin have pronounced intentions to run for leader.
In a wide-ranging interview regarding his political career, Pallister expressed regret over some of his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, though expressed optimism that the party will rebound from low polling numbers.
Nearly a decade as leader
Pallister became leader in 2012 and rapidly established memberships and donations. In 2016, he took the party from opposition benches to the biggest majority government in 100 years. The Torries were re-elected two years ago.
Never one to avoid confrontation, he froze wages of public-sector workers, cancelled a scheduled payment to the Manitoba Metis Federation for its support of hydroelectric projects and engaged in strong disagreement with the board at Manitoba Hydro till members resigned en masse.
Pallister issued an anecdote to explain his approach to politics. He said he went to a voter’s home in 1992 and found someone in a chair who said he was happy to stay on welfare and not seek for work.
“‘Now I’ve answered your questions, what are you going to do for me?”‘ Pallister recalled the man saying.
“I said, ‘If you can stand up, I’ll kick you in the ass, and get [expletive] out the door and go look for a job.’
“He says, ‘I’m not voting for you.’ And I said, ‘I’m not after the lazy vote, and if I’ve got to buy your vote, keep it.’
“And I’ve lived by that.”
Successes and defeats
Pallister’s achievements include a cut to the region’s sales tax and a brief conclusion to a decade of deficits. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leading to more red ink – and a decline in opinion polls.
The government placed restrictions on public gatherings and forced some companies to close, though at times resisted calls from physicians for stricter measures.
Case numbers rose in the 2nd and 3rd waves. Manitoba sent dozens of ICU patients to other regions and has to date recorded the second-highest per-capita death rate from COVID behind Quebec.
Pallister said he rued lifting restrictions when some vaccination or case-count targets were met, just to have to reimplement them as number grew again and the more-transmissible delta variant emerged.
“The problem is the [targets] weren’t high enough, and that’s the regret,” said Pallister, adding there was pressure in caucus.
“I’m probably, let’s just say, more cautious than most of my colleagues on this stuff.”
In early August, Pallister apologized for comments he made following two statues on the legislature grounds were toppled in protest over the deaths of Indigenous kids in residential schools.
The premier said persons who came to Canada didn’t come to destroy but to build, and Indigenous leaders criticized him for downplaying the harmful effects of the schools.
Pallister additionally ran into criticism for his intention to eliminate elected school boards. Those eyeing a leadership run have said they will not proceed with that.
Opinion polls in the last few months suggest Tory support has dropped, though Pallister said he is not deterred by polls 2 years out from the next election.
“If you’re worried about being popular all the time, you might back away from challenging decisions on major public policy issues.”
Tory fortunes are in a decent position to bounce back along with the post-pandemic economy, he said.
Before COVID, Manitoba had stronger growth in private-sector capital investment than most regions, according to provincial stats. Statistics Canada data shows average weekly earnings have rosen from a year ago notwithstanding the pandemic.
The premier also points to the fiscal turnaround as a major accomplishment. Two bond rating agencies had lowered Manitoba’s credit rating after years of deficits under the former NDP government. Ratings have since stabilized.
Pallister admitted to weakness on the communications front. Looking back, he said, he could have done a better job getting persons on board before announcing amendments to healthcare, education and other programs.
“We have to do a better job of getting third-party support.”
Pallister intends to stay on as a legislature member for a short time. Once he is fully retired, the premier wants to return to financial planning, exercise more and spend more time with family.
“I’m really looking forward to getting fit again … and when you’re 67, you’ve got to work at it.”