WINNIPEG — Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister genuinely appears to have little interest in being well-liked on a personal level.
Pallister has repeatedly said politics is not a popularity contest and admits that people may not want to sit down with him and have a beer.
He promotes himself as someone who may not be likable but, more importantly, can work hard and get things done.
“I lack personality, I’m not inspirational, I’ve been told. But I’m a problem-solver,” Pallister said shortly after being elected as premier in 2016.
“I think Manitobans are the stars in this thing, not me.”
Pallister, 65, grew up on a small farm — the homestead of his great-grandparents — near Portage la Prairie. Money was tight. He recalls having one ball that he and his younger brother Jim used for a variety of sports.
Pallister grew tall at a young age and eventually reached six-foot eight. He recalls being bullied as a kid because of his lanky stature.
He developed a passion for sports and hitchhiked to Brandon University to try out for the basketball team. His coach, Jerry Hemmings, recalls making Pallister run until he vomited in a garbage can. He’d then continue running.
Pallister took the same grit to other sports, enjoying success in curling and softball. What he lacked in natural ability, he made up for with hard work. He went on to win a provincial curling title and was enshrined in the Manitoba softball hall of fame.
That determination stayed with him. Pallister started an insurance and investment firm along with his wife, Esther, and grew the company over three decades. They sold it and used the proceeds to help pay for a $2-million, 9,000-square-foot mansion in Winnipeg — a far cry from Pallister’s humble roots.
The couple later bought a second home in Costa Rica, for which Pallister has been criticized. After becoming premier, he said he planned to spend up to two months a year there. He later reduced that to five weeks — a rare change of course for a politician who seems to have never backed down from a fight.
After serving briefly in the Manitoba legislature in the 1990s, Pallister became a member of Parliament from 1997 to 2008. He ran unopposed for the leadership of the Manitoba Tories in 2012 and was elected premier in 2016 with the biggest majority government in the province in a century.
His hard-driving, ready-for-battle personality quickly showed.
He demanded politicians and staff sell memberships and fundraise, or make way for those who would. At one meeting in 2012, he had people’s names drawn from a hat. They were assigned a constituency held by the NDP or Liberals and told to sell as many memberships as possible in that area.
The party entered the 2016 election flush with cash and support.
Since becoming premier, Pallister has engaged in fights with Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro’s board members, who resigned en masse; the Manitoba Metis Federation, which is suing over a cancelled hydro benefits package; and public-sector unions suing over a wage freeze.
“I’m not trying to make enemies with this job,” Pallister said in an interview. “I’m trying to stand up for the quiet people out there who are asked to pay for all this stuff.”
Pallister’s personality stands in contrast to the gregarious, hand-shaking image that other politicians have, says one political analyst.
“I think he’s more comfortable by himself, almost, and that comes out of a whole lifetime of being a kind of solitary person,” says Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Strong opposition has not stopped Pallister from pressing ahead to cut management jobs in the public sector, close some hospital emergency rooms, raise tuition fees and reduce subsidies for items ranging from sleep-apnea machines to public housing.
Doing so has helped him fulfil his two biggest campaign promises — reining in a string of annual deficits that had grown under the previous NDP government and cutting the provincial sales tax to seven per cent from eight.
But, his critics say, those actions have broken Pallister’s promise to protect front-line services that people depend on.
“We got into a situation where our provincial debt doubled in six years, partly because people couldn’t say no to special interest groups and wanted to be popular,” Pallister said.
“Politicians who want to be popular today often create problems for people later.”
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press