Premier Pallister went his own way in 2016

Premier Brian Pallister has challenged the Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa and the public sector unions at home. He cites healthcare and streamlining government as the big challenges for his administration.

Manitoba's premier says health care, labour relations major concerns in year-end interview

In a year-end interview, Manitoba's premier says health care and labour relations are major concerns. 2:22

In just over eight months, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has poked a stick at the federal government on health care, suspended dozens of projects promised by the previous government and openly challenged Manitoba's public sector unions.

It's that first topic the premier has circled as the biggest challenge to Manitoba's economy.

"Right now it's health care. There's no doubt about it," Pallister said in his year-end interview with the CBC.

He says having a strong health care system makes Manitoba more competitive in efforts to bring workers and companies to the province.

And if you get the MLA for Fort Whyte going on the topic, he paints a big target on Ottawa and its refusal to increase health care transfers.

The premier, who likes to make points with anecdotes, says Justin Trudeau's Liberals are proposing to take $60 billion off the table for health care over the next ten years, offering $3 billion over four years instead. 

Ottawa offering 'nickels'

"Now that's like saying to a Manitoba senior, 'Give me a loonie, I'll give you back a nickel and you should be thankful for that nickel,'" Pallister said.

So when Canada's first ministers gathered in Ottawa to talk climate change accords, Pallister pivoted to health care and joined Saskatchewan in not signing up to a federally-led carbon price scheme.

So far the feds haven't blinked on health care and Manitoba remains on the outside of a national climate change plan. So — did Pallister's strategy work?

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Manitoba's Brian Pallister held out on a proposed national climate change plan earlier this month. (CBC News)
"Well, we will find out," he said. "The other choice is not to raise the issue of health care, and I know it is the most important issue for Manitobans … health care is the number 1 concern that Canadians have and Manitobans have. This is why I chose to raise the issue. And I will continue to raise the issue."

The Progressive Conservative "made-in-Manitoba" climate change plan is coming — soon, Pallister says.

"First quarter of the new year. We've been working really hard on it. We've got some really great ideas from Manitobans. We've consulted extensively with Manitobans on the plan and I would say that it is nearing the final stages of preparation and I'm really excited about it."

If Pallister is poking the Ottawa Liberals on health care, some in Manitoba's labour movement would describe his relationship with them as going into the corners with elbows high.

Pallister pitches past labour leaders

Since taking office, Pallister has signaled his strategy on bargaining with the province's public sector unions by going public — telling the media of interest in getting wage roll-backs on existing contracts, musing about too many collective bargaining units in his state of the province speech, and promising legislation that would dictate future wage offers based on the province's ability to pay.

Without a heads-up on these ideas, the leadership of the public sector unions — representing tens of thousands of workers — are left scratching their heads. Pallister is fine with that. He says his message isn't for them, it's for the workers they represent.

"The union movement is not its leaders, it is its members, and we've reached out to its members from the get-go, because I believe in organized labour," he said.

But the Tory premier appears to show a streak of political disdain for the heads of some of the province's largest unions. 

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he sees too much politics behind public sector unions. (CBC News )

"Everybody in this province knows the strong and historic links between public sector union leaders and the NDP. Everyone knows it. It's not a secret," he said.

"But in the coming year we have to decide, all of us, is there a chance here to be part of finding solutions to our challenges? Or do you want to deny them and be part of the problem?"

After several months of talking at — but not to — each other, the PC government and some of labour's leadership will meet face-to-face on Jan. 5. That will be the chance for union heads to offer some of their solutions. They say they have ideas and want to help.

Pallister says his mandate is to slim a top-heavy government, and cites an already-begun process of trimming departments and shedding upper- and middle-management positions.

But by his tone, he's just warming up.

"That's just core government, but we also have to go out and we have to work with the Crowns and the universities and the hospitals and schools and so on, and see what we can do there. What's happened over the last number of years is government has gotten really big at the top, to the detriment of the frontline," Pallister said.

Billions on the bubble

Pallister's drive to balance books and his promise to protect frontline services has birthed a top-to-bottom review of projects and programs announced under the previous NDP government.

In the early days of his administration, Pallister said those commitments had a price tag of close to $600 million. Then it was $1 billion. Now, he says, the liabilities he inherited are much higher.

"Well, it's billions. Because what we are finding is, for example, repairs to social housing — we have a bill of a half a billion dollars, because the previous administration spent money on something else but didn't spend money on repairs to social housing."

A date for the release of results of those value-for-money reviews hasn't been set, but with many organizations waiting for the funding go-ahead in early 2017, the Tories' second budget, expected in March, should settle who is getting what.

CBC News had many more questions for the premier in the year-end interview, but time was limited to 15 minutes and graciously extended to 20 by his staff. At the conclusion, Pallister was asked what his holiday wishes might be for Manitobans.

Premier Pallister says he's asking for patience while overcoming Manitoba's challenges in the coming year. (CBC News)

"It would be, I wish you the best in this coming season. I hope you have joyous things to discuss, reminisce and look forward to, and I hope you enjoy the company of friends and family. And if you are alone, we are with you — thinking of you," Pallister said. 

"As I get older," he said, he feels "more and more blessed to have had the experiences I've had. To have met the people I have met. To be able to move forward with confidence, knowing what I believe in and the principles I hold dear to myself are shared with Manitobans."

As for the year to come, the premier said, "I ask them for their patience as we overcome many challenges. I ask them for their support as we move forward together to make Manitoba what it's really capable of being, and all the best in the new year."

Pallister concluded the interview by acknowledging 2017 will be a rough-and-tumble year in provincial politics, but said he's feeling "excited" about it.

"[I] didn't apply for the job because it was going to be easy."

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.