By leaving office early, Brian Pallister puts his party's future over his own pride

The very unpopular Progressive Conservative premier is departing in time to ensure his party still has a chance of winning the next election.

The unpopular Tory leader was the biggest asset for the NDP and Liberals. His departure gives the PCs a chance

Street art of Brian Pallister in Winnipeg this summer served as a testament to the outgoing premier's low popularity. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

When Brian Pallister first sought the premier's chair, he promised to reverse the most unflattering legacy left behind by Greg Selinger's NDP: Massive annual deficits and a ballooning provincial debt.

Four years later, he achieved that goal, but only for a nanosecond.

On the cusp of April Fool's Day 2020, Pallister's Progressive Conservative government balanced the provincial books. Then COVID-19 arrived and effectively ended his effort to revoke Manitoba's status as a have-not province.

Thanks to the pandemic, this province is on track to post a $2.1-billion deficit. Red ink is expected to continue flowing for another five years.

This means Pallister won't be premier when the budget is balanced once more. He probably won't even be premier by the time Halloween, his favourite holiday, rolls around again.

After announcing his departure from the premier's office on Tuesday, Pallister will cease to be Manitoba's leader as soon as the Progressive Conservative party chooses someone to succeed him.

But while his dream of cleaning up Selinger's fiscal mess will go unfulfilled, Pallister just ensured he didn't repeat Selinger's worst political mistake.

The very unpopular Tory premier is departing in time to ensure his party has a chance of winning the next election, which is something Selinger refused to do when some of his own MLAs decided the former NDP leader was a political liability.

"The [Progressive Conservative] party is deeply unpopular, and I think it's largely because of the leader himself," said pollster Scott MacKay, the founder of Winnipeg's Probe Research.

While MacKay said contesting another election with Pallister at the helm "would be almost suicidal," the pollster believes the PCs now have a shot at winning back voter support, provided someone less combative becomes the new Tory leader.

"He is a leader that rules with an iron fist. He seems not to be very collegial, and the idea that the governing Conservative Party is a team-based organization is really not there," MacKay said.

"The party is is clearly damaged by this, but with a fresh face, I think that it is not impossible for them to come back."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister waves at reporters after announcing he is stepping down from his role before the next provincial election. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

The next provincial election is two years away. That means there's plenty of time for a new leader to introduce themselves to Manitoba voters and potentially win back some support.

The opposition parties appear to understand this. For them, the unpopular premier was a political asset.

Within minutes of Pallister's departure speech on Tuesday, both Manitoba's NDP and Liberals went from attacking Pallister to attacking every Progressive Conservative MLA.

"I know there's probably many Manitobans who are breathing a sigh of relief today, but I just want to remind you that it's not just Mr. Pallister. It's been the entire PC caucus that has supported his decisions," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in the rotunda of the Manitoba Legislative Building.

"When you look at what happened over the last year in terms of the pandemic, it was an absolute crisis from beginning to end, and no one spoke up until after the third wave was substantially over," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said of the PC caucus.

"Brian Pallister is stepping aside, but I think he's a spectre that's going to haunt the PCs for the next two years."

Pandemic performance

Pallister is leaving future biographers with no shortage of colourful policies to examine. He tried and failed to legislate a wage freeze for public-sector workers. He proposed a carbon tax, cancelled it, proposed a replacement and then put that off that as well. 

He cut the PST by one percentage point, pledged a second cut and then rolled that back when the pandemic hit. He started cutting education taxes at a time when the provincial budget begged for revenue.

He engaged in feuds with the leaders of every other level of government — municipal, federal and Indigenous. He suggested colonization proceeded with no intention of harming Indigenous people while outrage simmered over unmarked burial sites found at residential schools.

But it was the disastrous management of the pandemic that will likely go down as the greatest failure of Pallister's time in office.

After sailing through the first wave of COVID-19 relatively unscathed, this province failed to blunt the severity of a second wave that wound up being the deadliest in Canada on a per-capita basis. Hundreds of seniors died last fall in personal care homes.

The province then failed to mitigate the third wave of COVID-19, which overwhelmed Manitoba hospitals to the point where 57 COVID patients had to be transferred to intensive care wards in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

"We were the only province in Canada [that] had to seek care for these people in other provinces," MacKay said. "That's really startling to people and says something perhaps about this government and the reforms that they had been doing to the health-care system."

While voters like having more money on the kitchen table, they much prefer it when none of the chairs around that table are empty.

Pallister may very well be remembered for being the premier who admonished Manitobans for failing to observe pandemic rules his government was late to enact and enforce.

"You don't need to like me," he said last December in his famous man-who-stole-Christmas speech. "I hope in years to come, you may respect me for having the guts to tell you to do the right thing."

As with most political legacies, this remains to be seen.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

With files from Ian Froese and Cameron MacIntosh