'4 more years': Early Manitoba election gamble pays off for defiant Pallister

'4 more years': Early Manitoba election gamble pays off for defiant Pallister

The gravity of the night, and what his Progressive Conservative party achieved in winning a second consecutive majority government, appeared to hit Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister when he spoke about the people closest to him in his victory speech Tuesday night.

He and his wife Esther had never spent as much time together on a campaign trail, he told a crowd of supporters huddled in a Winnipeg ballroom coloured in blue hue. They are empty-nesters now, he says.

"I thank God for Esther and I thank Esther," Pallister, 65, said, as he reached over to his wife, blinking away any tears.

It was a deeply human moment from a man who faced harsh criticism over the impacts of his cost-cutting agenda during his first term as Manitoba premier.

Ballot box no popularity contest

Pallister's PCs lost four seats from their historic 40-seat majority win in 2016 — but were still decisively returned to power by Manitoba voters on Tuesday.

This in spite of the fact that more than half of Manitobans don't approve of his performance as premier, recent polling suggests. Even so, the re-election of Pallister, who has repeatedly said politics shouldn't be a popularity contest, was never really in doubt.

At first blush, his victory appears to be more a testament to the Progressive Conservative leader's accomplishments than his 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.

James Turner/CBC

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

"Four more years," some of his 300 supporters chanted in a Winnipeg conference room garnished with balloons, a selfie station and blue spotlights as Pallister took to the podium, his grin wide.

His victory address was brief at seven minutes, and offered no hints as to where his majority government will go in its upcoming term.

Watch as Brian Pallister addresses his supporters after winning a second majority government:

Afterward, he said he was struck by the vote of confidence the electorate provided.

"It's a tremendous honour, obviously, and it is historic," he told reporters.

"We've captured, over the last two elections, more seats than any back-to-back government in the history of the province of Manitoba. That is a monumental honour, and it carries with it monumental responsibilities."

The loss of four seats was disappointing, he said, but hardly an admonishment of the controversial decisions he made in his first term, including the biggest overhaul to Winnipeg's health-care system in a generation.

James Turner/CBC

"[I] think it would be wrong to suggest that getting close to half the popular support in back-to-back elections was anything resembling a rebuke," Pallister said.

He acknowledges he has a message to learn from the seats his party lost.

"I think we need to listen better. I think we need to communicate better what we're doing and why," Pallister said.

"That communication challenge is one we have to address. There's change, for example, in the health-care system that affects front-line workers. It's beginning to work, but it's not easy on everyone and I understand that."

Pallister said he was disheartened to have lost cabinet minister Colleen Mayer, who was defeated in St. Vital by the NDP's Jamie Moses.

"That saddens me tremendously," Pallister said. He applauded Mayer, who showed up to the ballroom and was greeted immediately with warm embraces from her former colleagues, as a diligent worker.

The referendum on his 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.

Fiscal house in order

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

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

The measures the Progressive Conservatives took were sometimes unpopular. 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.

James Turner/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 former 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 the 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. Opponents say that focus has come at the expense of the front-line services he vowed to protect, including in the health-care sector, where workers have complained of staffing shortages and unsustainable workloads.

It was always going to be hard to meet — or improve on — the 40 seats the Tories took in 2016, forming the largest majority government in Manitoba history.

On the campaign trail, Pallister utilized a classic front-runner's strategy, making mostly modest pledges. He vowed to build on 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.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

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.

His party made efforts 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. 

Throughout his time in politics — stretching back to his first stint as an MLA beginning in 1992, and extending to three victories in federal runs between 2000 and 2008 — Pallister has related to voters by citing 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.

Ian Froese/CBC

He returned to provincial politics in 2012 when he ran unopposed for leadership of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives and was able to capitalize on the growing unpopularity of the NDP government in his party's 2016 win.

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."