Opinion

Anyone who thought Eileen Clarke was going to go quietly into the political night is about to be bitterly disappointed.

Anyone who thought Eileen Clarke was going to go quietly into the political night is about to be bitterly disappointed.

After resigning her post as Indigenous and northern affairs minister — a decision that has freed her from the suffocating yoke of a domineering premier — the Tory MLA for Agassiz is pledging to spend her coming days travelling the province, asking Manitobans for their assessment of the Pallister government.

"I truly believe Manitobans need to understand how government works and what takes it off the rails," Clarke told the Free Press a couple of hours before Premier Brian Pallister announced a cabinet shuffle to replace her.

"I made it clear to the premier I will not stay within the boundaries of Agassiz but will travel across the province. We are elected by the people for the people. Right now, the people have a lot to say and I’m going to listen."

After resigning her post as Indigenous and northern affairs minister Eileen Clarke is pledging to spend her coming days travelling the province, asking Manitobans for their assessment of the Pallister government. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

After resigning her post as Indigenous and northern affairs minister Eileen Clarke is pledging to spend her coming days travelling the province, asking Manitobans for their assessment of the Pallister government. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

There is no glass-half-full spin to be put on Clarke's resignation and subsequent statements.

A respected member of cabinet and an opinion leader within the Progressive Conservative party in western Manitoba, Clarke's decision to step down as a minister to protest Pallister's recent abhorrent comments about colonial settlers and Indigenous protesters is as unflattering for the premier as it is seismic.

In more than five years of leading government, Pallister has controlled his MLAs and ministers with an iron fist. In the wake of Clarke's departure, that fist has clearly begun to loosen its grip.

That may seem to be an exaggeration, until you consider the impact Clarke's listening tour may have on the remaining Tory ministers and MLAs. There is growing concern and impatience in the PC ranks about whether Pallister will hang on to the leadership or step down sometime this year to give the party time to rebrand.

Would Clarke use her newly found status as one of the highest-profile politicians in the province to launch her own leadership bid? For now, she unequivocally dismissed the idea: "Never."

"I like people. I'm grass roots. I don't need a title." – Eileen Clarke

"I like people. I'm grass roots. I don't need a title," she said.

Even so, it is hard to imagine Pallister isn't at least considering the possibility this is the beginning of the end of his political career.

Again, that might seem a bit melodramatic but we've seen this story play out before.

From 2014 to 2016, then-premier Greg Selinger was forced to defend his NDP leadership from the "Gang of Five," a group of dissident cabinet ministers who wanted him to step down. At a November 2014 news conference, Andrew Swan, Theresa Oswald, Jennifer Howard, Erin Selby and Stan Struthers described the frustration they experienced working under Selinger in terms that are not dissimilar to what Clarke has said of Pallister.

The dissidents accused Selinger of being resistant to any advice from cabinet ministers, a leader who looked only for "validation" for decisions already made. They said Selinger had long-stopped asking for, or taking, input from any of colleagues.

"When you are a voice that may not sing in harmony with what the premier wants to say, it becomes very difficult for your voice to be heard after that," Oswald said at the time.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Clarke claimed her decision to step down from cabinet was necessary because: "I felt my voice and others are not being heard."

A screen capture of the post Eileen Clarke wrote on her Facebook page Thursday morning.

A screen capture of the post Eileen Clarke wrote on her Facebook page Thursday morning.

It is naive to assume a governing party in a parliamentary democracy could make all of its important decisions by consensus. With differing views, policies and priorities, there is a practical need for the first minister to make final decisions and, in so doing, forge the government's agenda.

That does not mean leaders have the luxury of ignoring the people who should be helping make important decisions. If you repeatedly act against the advice of your cabinet, or frequently bring dishonour and controversy down on the government, you can bet someone, at some point, will break ranks.

That is what Selinger did; it's what Pallister is doing.

There are no immediate signs other MLAs or ministers are willing to follow Clarke into the ranks of the friendly dissident. Now-former agriculture minister Blaine Pedersen was also shuffled out of cabinet Thursday, although it was to facilitate a long-planned retirement from politics this fall.

Will others follow? Up to this point, most of the MLAs and cabinet ministers in Pallister's government were too afraid to challenge him publicly.

However, after five-plus years at the head of a government that has been as controversial as it has been successful, in electoral terms, there are a whole lot fewer Tories who are afraid of Brian Pallister.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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