Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks during the closing news conference at the First Ministers Meeting in Ottawa, Friday December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Manitoba premier no longer appears firm on staying for a full second term

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister appears to be leaving the door open to an exit from political life before the next provincial election slated for October 2023.

Pallister said in interviews during the 2019 election campaign that he would serve a full second term if re-elected. He repeated the message a few months later when he said he planned on completing his second term and might run for a third if the public would have him.

Now, he appears committed only to staying on to guide the province through the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m committed to seeing (the pandemic) through,” Pallister said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press when asked whether he’ll serve his full term.

“Never say ‘whoa’ in a mud hole.”

It’s an old expression about the dangers of stopping a horse-drawn wagon in muck before getting to dry ground.

Asked two more times about his intentions, he said: “I hope COVID’s over next week. But as long as COVID’s here, I’m going to be here.”

By many measures, Pallister is at a point in life when a good number of Canadians would contemplate retiring. The Progressive Conservative leader, 66, is wealthy and has a home in Costa Rica where he loves to spend time with his family.

He planned to spend up to eight weeks a year there while serving as premier but, after controversy erupted, walked that back and said it would be closer to five.

Pallister said he won’t be travelling to Costa Rica this winter. The former university basketball athlete, who built a successful insurance company and investment firm from scratch, said he will stay firmly focused on the pandemic in Manitoba.

“I’ve got the experiences of playing sports at a pretty high level, of starting a business out of my car … and I learned some practical lessons at the feet of my parents and grandparents and mentors over the years. I’m calling on all those things now to do the very, very best I can in this respect.”

Pallister’s plans may also be affected by recent opinion polls that suggest Manitobans are not pleased with how his government has handled the pandemic.

A survey by Probe Research suggested the Tories have fallen well behind the Opposition New Democrats for the first time in years, especially in Winnipeg, which accounts for most of the 57 seats in the legislature. A poll by Angus Reid scored Pallister’s approval rating the lowest among premiers.

One political analyst said Pallister may be urged to step down by fellow Tories if polling doesn’t improve.

“Perhaps if the party continues to plummet … then you might see more open signs of restlessness and insistence that something has to change before the next election,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

Pallister’s numbers had been higher before a late-summer spike in COVID-19 cases. Manitoba imposed restrictions on public gatherings and businesses incrementally and the numbers kept rising. For much of the fall, Manitoba had the highest per-capita rate of new infections in the country.

The government appeared caught off guard at the start of the second wave. Lines at COVID-19 testing sites were long and contact tracing lagged. Outbreaks erupted at long-term care homes.

In mid-November, the government imposed a provincewide shutdown that closed non-essential businesses and forbade most gatherings with anyone outside one’s own household. The daily case count levelled off and started trending downward.

In early December, Pallister made an emotional plea to Manitobans to stay away from extended family gatherings over the holidays. The total number of deaths shot up from 20 at the start of October to 500 by mid-December.

That has left Manitoba with the second-highest per-capita rate of COVID-19-related deaths in the country behind Quebec, federal Health department statistics show.

Pallister points out that testing capacity and contact tracing has increased. Intensive care capacity in hospitals is up as well, although health officials have repeatedly said the system remains heavily taxed.

Asked what he would do differently if he had one option, he pointed to increased enforcement to ensure people follow restrictions.

“We emphasized education. If I had it to do over again, we should have gone a little sooner on deterrence — fines and inspections,” he said.

“There are some folks who just didn’t get the message and (there) still are some, and so deterrents matter.”

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