Pallister's call for 'all hands on deck' hits rough waters

Premier Brian Pallister was in Costa Rica during the fallout from his comments on night hunting and race wars and the response to the Quebec mosque shooting, but he still wants Manitobans on deck for his government's budget.

Manitoba premier's words and absence could hinder calls for support

Brian Pallister has said the province is in an 'all hands on deck' situation, but recent comments about night hunting and concerns over his time in Costa Rica have resulted in choppy waters for the Manitoba premier. (CBC)

If YouTube videos of cats and President Donald Trump have lost some of their appeal during your idle surfing time, Google "Brian Pallister" and "all hands on deck."

The exercise will keep you scrolling for a while.

In press scrums, one-on-one interviews and speeches to groups large and small since he was elected, Premier Brian Pallister has turned to some go-to phrases to urge people to his cause. The nautical call to jump on board the ship (maybe canoe would be more appropriate for us Manitobans) is perhaps his first choice.

In one case, Pallister flipped his stump line from a rallying cry to a descriptive prescriptive: "I believe this is an all-hands-on-deck situation," he said in reference to controlling public sector costs.

The need for "all hands on deck" usually comes after Pallister outlines the battered situation left to his government by the NDP and the difficult decisions that must be made to right the ship.

That deck is becoming slippery.

This week, the Progressive Conservative government essentially asked Manitoba's school divisions, their teachers and other staff, students, parents and ratepayers to get on deck.

A one per cent funding increase for Kindergarten to Grade 12 education will mean much less for some divisions, no extra cash for an election promise to improve reading and math skills, and big bumps in education taxes in some regions.

Are you on board yet? Wait until the budget.

Pallister won a decently fought election campaign against a tired government and received a record number of seats. But during the election, the tone wasn't as dire as it became after the Tories clapped eyes on the books.

It's much worse, the new premier asserted: "I really need all hands on deck."

On deck with 'race war' comments, travel

Two words and a country far away appear to have distracted some from the call to join Pallister in his journey to make Manitoba the county's most-improved province.

However sincere the premier was in telling a small audience in Virden he heard their concerns about night hunting and safety issues, a seasoned politician would likely choose any other words but "race war" when trying to characterize a possible outcome from inaction.

From groups that promote safe hunting to rural politicians to Indigenous leaders, there have been stiff rebukes publicly and genuine concern privately. Those two words set the effort to make rural areas safer at night back a step, at least.

A seasoned politician would also likely have poured cold water on that smoldering fire instantly — and personally. But the premier wasn't around for the flames. 

Instead, he answered a door not at his home in Winnipeg or in the Legislature but at his villa in Costa Rica, and got into a dispute over another set of remarks construed as racist with a journalist from a national magazine.

When Pallister returned home, the country was in shock and mourning. Six people had been killed at a mosque in Quebec and political leaders across Canada were doing their best to calm nerves and promote unity. 

The premier's appearance at a Winnipeg mosque was appropriate, albeit a little late. He says he was on his way back quickly when he heard the news from Quebec.

Premier Brian Pallister chose to address his 'race war' comments and Costa Rican sojourns in a Manitoba mosque following fatal shootings in Quebec. (CBC News)

However, his choice to use that appearance to respond to his comments about night hunting and to further explain his absence from Manitoba prompted one reporter in attendance to apologize to a Muslim community leader for the government bringing the press corps to a place of worship during a time of crisis, and for focusing on anything but the needs and concerns of that community.

Several members of the media in attendance felt the same way — uncomfortable. 

Unseemly as it might have felt for journalists, the outcome of that press conference did little to settle what Pallister said or didn't say to the magazine reporter in Costa Rica. There is no tape of his words. Actually, the final words left over from that debate are his.

"I am telling you on my honour that those are not words I would ever say, nor did I say them then," Pallister told reporters.

This, Manitobans must trust, is not the same honour Pallister was exercising when he told the Winnipeg Free Press he was at a wedding during the height of Manitoba's 2014 flood without disclosing he also went on a two-week getaway to Costa Rica during that time.

Or when he told the newspaper he was in North Dakota in the fall of 2015, when travel records obtained by CBC News show he was, again, in Costa Rica.

'Think I used the wrong choice of words'

Ultimately, if the press or the public was expecting Pallister to apologize for what he said in Virden or step back from the remarks reported in Maclean's, they were mistaken.

And if the end goal is to reset an agenda to make rural communities safer from gunfire in the night, a mea culpa isn't part of the premier's strategy. And there won't be one if, in the future, Pallister is in Costa Rica when a crisis erupts. He will return when he can. Period.

Manitobans will get a better look at the true form of this government this spring. Many voted for a move to fiscal sobriety and will applaud that change. Some will not. 

There are others who listened to Brian Pallister's call for "all hands on deck," and were considering signing on. 

It is those people who media, pollsters, pundits and politicians often identify as the group that helps one party, and its leader, win elections — and accept tough decisions while in office.

It is reasonable to say the deck the premier is asking Manitobans to leap onto is in somewhat choppier waters, stirred up by some of his own decisions.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.