It is tradition for members of the Manitoba legislature to pay tribute to departing party leaders. It's a time to focus on the positive, to set aside partisan differences to recognize, for better or worse, elected officials are all in this job for roughly the same reasons.
That is not, however, what happened Wednesday, when it came time to recognize former Progressive Conservative leader and premier Brian Pallister, who stepped down from those roles last month and who resigned as Fort Whyte MLA on Monday.
Premier Kelvin Goertzen pretty much stuck to tradition, thanking Pallister for his years of public service, while poking a bit of fun with references to him having "a place down south somewhere" — a clear reference to the Costa Rican villa that became a point of controversy for Pallister.
That same playful tone was maintained when NDP Leader Wab Kinew rose for his tribute. He told an anecdote about the first time he met Pallister in 2013 or 2014, when Kinew was still a journalist and Pallister was leader of the Opposition.
Kinew said Pallister patted him on the back and said: "You'd make an excellent MLA."
Very quickly, Kinew's tone changed. He let it be known while Pallister was gone, his impact on Manitoba would not soon be forgotten by the NDP.
After wishing nothing but the best to Pallister and his family, Kinew punctuated his tribute with a prickly warning. "And to the remaining PCs who may be trying to distance themselves from his legacy: good luck."
Kinew's full-court press continued in the first question period of the new legislative session. "Brian Pallister may be gone," the NDP leader said. "But Brian Pallister's party is still here implementing Brian Pallister's plan."
Some will argue Kinew broke unwritten rules of parliamentary decorum, injecting partisanship into an expressly non-partisan gesture or using question period to continue kicking a former premier who left office under somewhat embarrassing circumstances.
However, it was a pretty clear reminder the NDP will be committing an enormous amount of time over the next two years to keeping Pallister's memory alive.
Although the Opposition NDP has reached lofty heights in public opinion polls over the last year, the PC government has a real opportunity to rebrand once either Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover (the candidates in the Tory leadership race) becomes the next premier of Manitoba.
It is not guaranteed, but the Tories are hoping a new face at the helm will help voters shed some of the animosity they had for the last guy.
Tory fortunes rise on Pallister-free tide: pollClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Oct. 1, 2021
Manitoba's Progressive Conservative party is no longer sinking since its biggest anchor (former premier Brian Pallister) was thrown overboard.
And while the Tories are still sailing through shoals — with the NDP still strongly in place to win if an election were held now — they have bounced up from previous polling depths, according to the latest Probe Research omnibus survey on provincial party support.
The NDP got a strong whiff of just how open-minded voters may be about a new Tory leader in the Free Press-Probe Research poll released last week.
The NDP are still out in front of the Tories by a comfortable margin provincewide (42 per cent to 35 per cent), and continue to dominate Winnipeg (51 per cent to 28 per cent).
However, following Pallister's departure, the gap closed. And in most polls conducted two years before the next general election — as this one was — the trend line is way more important than the actual numbers.
It was also a stark reminder the NDP's current popularity has less to do with who its members are and what they stand for, and more to do with the fact they are not Pallister.
Opposition parties suffer from a lot of disadvantages when compared with the sitting government. They have to work much harder to get media attention and have fewer overall resources to promote ideas. Ranting in question period can do as much harm to the stock of opposition leaders as it can to position them as premiers-in-waiting.
However, opposition politicians also have the advantage of not having to carry the baggage that often weighs down those in power. Particularly, if the politician in power is a guy like Pallister, who was extremely unpopular both inside and outside his party.
In short, along with mentioning Pallister at every opportunity, the NDP are going to have to start showing people they have ideas worthy of support.
Meantime, there is also reason to believe the Tories will indulge in some strategic pandering to win back support.
To "clean the slate" for the next premier, Goertzen announced the PC government was dropping several pieces of contentious legislation, including bills that would have restructured public education and limited the Public Utilities Board's ability to set rates for Manitoba Hydro.
The former was unpopular with just about everyone outside of Pallister's senior staff; the latter was decried by consumers groups and large industrial power users.
New Democrats have reason to be bullish about the 2023 election. But that enthusiasm should be tempered by the knowledge the PCs will have a new leader and will have engaged in some targeted pandering.
It has taken some governing parties less to stay in power.
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.