WINNIPEG — Canada’s longest serving current premier is stepping down after a decade in the top office, shocking the province and even members of his own party.
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer is leaving well before the next election in 2011, with his party high in the polls and with no one trying to push him out.
The so-called “Teflon premier,” who has always walked a careful line between cutting small business taxes and bolstering social programs, wouldn’t say when exactly he will leave or what he’ll do next.
“You’re going to ask me the exact date of when I’m leaving, and I’m going to do that in consultation with the party,” said Doer, looking relaxed and upbeat with his wife Ginny at his side at a hastily called news conference Thursday.
“You’re going to ask me who do you think is going to replace me, and I’m not going to answer that question. And you’re going to ask me what am I going to do next. Well, I’m not going to watch soaps.”
“I had planned to step down in and around this 10-year period. I hadn’t planned on telling any of you ahead of time.”
Doer, 62, was first elected in 1986 and joined the NDP cabinet.
He became party leader two years later following the defeat of then NDP premier Howard Pawley. Doer led the party from the opposition benches for 11 years.
In 1999, he won the first of three consecutive majority governments.
Having spoken to other politicians whose careers were cut short by a lost election, Doer said he wanted to leave at a time of his choosing.
“I thought, if you ever get a chance in this job to go out on your own timing, you’d better take advantage of it. I have watched very good people leave not of their own accord,” Doer said.
“I think it’s important that you go out on your own terms as an individual but you also go in a way that allows your party to renew and the government to renew and the public to have a renewed sense of energy.”
Although he recently gave a keynote address at the federal NDP’s general meeting in Nova Scotia, Doer was coy about whether he will remain in the public eye. The one place he isn’t headed is the Senate, he joked.
“Being premier is the pinnacle of public service and you never say never, but my plans are to move on,” he said.
“I’ve got a lot of energy. I’ve been offered all kinds of opportunities over the years … I’ve got lots left in the tank.”
Tributes for Doer poured in Thursday as news of his departure circulated.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Doer on behalf of the federal government for his many years of service to Manitoba and Canada.
“…He has been a valued partner among First Ministers and a strong voice for Manitoba within the Canadian federation… He can be very proud of a career spent serving the public,” Harper said in a news release.
Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton called Doer’s departure “a shock,” but said the premier is “respected all across the country.”
“He’s demonstrated what pragmatic, principled leadership can be in this country and what New Democrat governments can look like and accomplish,” Layton said. “He makes sure that there are both jobs and great social services and strong communities.”
Even Doer’s political opposites remembered him fondly.
“During premiers’ conferences, we put our political differences behind,” said former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who was the longest serving premier before handing that title to Doer when Klein retired.
“He was a pleasant sort of fellow who will be missed by his constituents. He gave me a trip to see the polar bears at Churchill, which I took with my son. It was a retirement gift.”
Paul Thomas, political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, said Doer’s shrewd nature and knack for negotiation made it possible for him to work with people of all political stripes, including Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“Lots of people don’t like Harper, but Doer would never sacrifice gains for Manitoba by having an outraged encounter with Harper,” he said. “He may not be warm, personal friends with Harper, but he knows he has to work with Harper.”
The party executive is expected to meet as early as this weekend to discuss when and how a leadership convention will take place.