Manitoba PC Leader Brian Pallister and his wife, Esther, enter his party's election victory party in Winnipeg, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister looks back on career before stepping down Wednesday

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister plans to leave office Wednesday and have the Tory caucus choose an interim leader.

Pallister, who announced his intention to step down earlier this month, said he has decided to leave well before the Progressive Conservative leadership vote Oct. 30.

Part of the reason, he says, is a desire to ensure the race does not become divisive.

“The dangers of not leaving (this week) are that false allegations will be made about me trying to influence the outcome (of the leadership vote),” Pallister said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“And I have not, in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I have only spoken two weeks ago to my cabinet and caucus and said, ‘I will be neutral. I wish you well. I would encourage you to make sure that this is a contest among friends.’”

So far, former health minister Heather Stefanson, former member of Parliament Shelly Glover and Tory backbencher Shannon Martin have announced plans to run for leader.

In a wide-ranging interview about his political career, Pallister indicated regret over some of his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but expressed optimism that the party will rebound from low polling numbers.

Pallister became leader in 2012 and quickly built up memberships and donations. Four years later, he took the party from the opposition benches to the largest majority government in a century. The Tories were re-elected in 2019.

Never one to avoid confrontation, he froze wages of public-sector workers, cancelled a planned payment to the Manitoba Métis Federation for its support of hydroelectric projects, and butted heads with the board at Manitoba Hydro until members resigned en masse.

Pallister offered an anecdote to explain his approach to politics. He said he went to a voter’s home in 1992 and found a man in a chair who said he was content to stay on welfare and not look for work.

“‘Now I’ve answered your questions, what are you going to do for me?”’ Pallister recalled the man saying.

“I said, ‘If you can stand up, I’ll kick you in the ass, and get (expletive) out the door and go look for a job.”

“‘He says, ‘I’m not voting for you.’ And I said, ‘I’m not after the lazy vote, and if I’ve got to buy your vote, keep it.’

“And I’ve lived by that.”

Pallister’s achievements include a cut to the province’s sales tax and a brief end to a decade of deficits. Then the pandemic hit, which resulted in more red ink — and a drop in opinion polls.

The government placed restrictions on public gatherings and forced some businesses to close, but at times resisted calls from physicians for tougher measures.

Case numbers spiked in the second and third waves. Manitoba sent dozens of intensive care patients to other provinces and has to date recorded the second-highest per-capita death rate from COVID-19 behind Quebec.

Pallister said he rued lifting restrictions when certain vaccination or case-count targets were met, only to have to reimplement them as numbers grew again and the more-transmissible Delta variant emerged.

“The problem is the (targets) weren’t high enough, and that’s the regret,” said Pallister, adding there was pressure in caucus.

“I’m probably, let’s just say, more cautious than most of my colleagues on this stuff.”

In early August, Pallister apologized for comments he made after two statues on the legislature grounds were toppled in protest over the deaths of indigenous children in residential schools. The premier said people who came to Canada did not come to destroy but to build, and Indigenous leaders criticized him for downplaying the harmful effects of the schools.

Pallister also ran into criticism for his plan to eliminate elected school boards. Some people eyeing a leadership run have said they won’t go ahead with that.

Opinion polls in recent months suggest Tory support has plummeted, but Pallister said he’s not deterred by polls two years out from the next election.

“If you’re worried about being popular all the time, you might back away from challenging decisions on major public policy issues.”

Tory fortunes are in a good position to rebound along with the post-pandemic economy, he suggested.

Before the pandemic, Manitoba had stronger growth in private-sector capital investment than most provinces, provincial statistics show. Statistics Canada data indicates average weekly earnings have increased from a year ago, despite COVID-19.

Pallister also points to the fiscal turnaround as a major accomplishment. Two bond rating agencies had lowered Manitoba’s credit rating after years of deficits under the former NDP government. Ratings have since stabilized.

The premier admitted to weakness on the communications front. Looking back, he said, he could have done a better job getting people on board before announcing changes to education, health care and other programs. “We have to do a better job of getting third-party support.”

Pallister plans to stay on as a legislature member for a short time. Once he’s fully retired, he wants to return to financial planning, spend more time with family and exercise more.

“I’m really looking forward to getting fit again … and when you’re 67, you’ve got to work at it.”