WINNIPEG – With a quip about a woman’s high heels at a business luncheon, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister ended 2017 pretty much the way he started it — with a strange, seemingly out-of-the-blue comment that stirred up controversy and distracted from whatever message he might have been trying to convey.
It’s a problem that Pallister may want to address in the new year if he wants to improve his odds of being re-elected to a second term in 2020, says one political analyst.
“The odd expressions or phrases that he delivers at times just seem strange and difficult to fathom and it doesn’t do his cause any good,” says Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“He doesn’t have the instinctive judgment about the appropriateness of remarks in certain contexts. Other politicians are much more naturally gifted in that respect than Brian Pallister.”
Pallister acknowledges he’s made verbal missteps on occasion during his time in the Manitoba legislature and in the House of Commons. But he says his remarks are always authentic.
“I’m 25 years in public life and you’re not going to get the rough edges off of me. At the end of the day, I’m going to be genuine. I’m going to tell you what I think and I’m going to step in it once in a while,” Pallister said earlier this month.
“If people want cosmetic, focus-tested politicians, then they’ll vote for somebody else.”
Pallister’s high-heel remark came as he started his state-of-the province speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 7. He thanked the chamber’s chair, Johanna Hurme, “for dressing up. I want to thank her for those heels.”
Pallister said later he was poking fun at his own six-foot-eight frame and remarking that Hurme’s heels made their heights more similar. The chamber called the comments inappropriate.
Last January, Pallister drew criticism for warning that Indigenous night hunting was leading to a possible “race war.”
Earlier in his political career, he included “infidel atheists” in an off-the-cuff Christmas greeting and once said he was giving “a woman’s answer” to a reporter’s question by being fickle.
Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government faces challenges beyond the premier’s verbal gaffes.
Elected on a promise to cut ballooning deficits and reverse a controversial sales tax increase by the previous NDP government, the Tories are closing some hospital emergency rooms, freezing funding for municipal transit and cutting public-sector jobs.
Pallister has also emerged as one of the most vocal opponents among premiers of several federal initiatives, including carbon pricing, health funding and revenue-sharing of a proposed marijuana excise tax.
It may be good for the Tories to give the public tough medicine early in their mandate, Thomas says, so that things can settle down before the next election.
Pallister is also being helped by the opposition parties still being in rebuilding mode following last year’s election that saw the Tories capture 40 of 57 seats. The NDP and Liberals have recently elected new leaders and have been working to pay off election debt.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew has faced controversy over assault and impaired driving convictions, as well as over offensive rap lyrics and social media posts that became know prior to the last election.
More recently, a 2003 charge of domestic assault came to light. The charge was stayed by the Crown and Kinew said there was no substance to the accusation, but his former girlfriend said in September that she was thrown across a room by Kinew and suffered severe rug burns on her legs.
Kinew’s past will be raised again by his political opponents, Thomas says.
And Kinew knows it.
“It’s always going to come up every time my name is on a ballot,”
Kinew says he has changed since his legal troubles more than a decade ago and has become a better person. He has worked at CBC, Al-Jazeera and the University of Winnipeg.
“Media coverage may portray me in one light, but … the way that my professional career has gone, I have always worked in a respectful workplace environment and I’ve always worked hard to uphold those things.”
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, who has been a writer and policy analyst in the public and private sectors, says he’s looking forward to changing politics in the province.