Brian Pallister was never a good listener. He’s the kind of guy who regularly cuts you off mid-sentence in casual conversation to tell you what he thinks; he's not that interested in what you have to say.
He's a one-way talker.
It’s also how Pallister, who will step down Wednesday as Manitoba’s 22nd premier, governed. He rarely consulted and only took advice from people who thought like him, or told him what he wanted to hear.
He knew everything: how to reorganize health care and education, how to grow the economy, how to reform the civil service — even how to fight a pandemic. He didn’t need help, input or advice from anybody.
If Pallister commissioned a report and didn’t like the recommendations (such as the recent review of public schools), he would come up with his own changes, regardless of evidence and input from others.
Pallister was usually wrong in his unilateral decision–making, but he rarely admitted it.
When medical professionals warned against making cuts to hospital budgets while undergoing an unprecedented reorganization of health care, Pallister dismissed them, insisting they could absorb budget cuts without affecting front-line services.
Pallister was usually wrong in his unilateral decision-making, but he rarely admitted it.
Running a government is complicated. Even the most pragmatic leaders, who consult widely and consider multiple angles before making decisions, don’t always get it right. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone in a world of competing interests.
Leaders who do consult and collaborate are usually the ones who succeed.
Pallister had some success in his first term in office, mostly because he was focused on balancing the books and slowing down the accumulation of government debt. It was a straightforward and necessary task and he excelled at it.
But when it came to more complicated policy issues, such as reorganizing health care and the public-school system — all of which require meaningful consultation — he faltered.
Pallister was not the steady hand at the wheel Manitobans needed during a crisis. He was unstable. His combative and abrasive style and his propensity to lash out when things didn’t go his way undermined government’s ability to respond effectively to the pandemic.
The ultimate test for Pallister’s leadership came when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Pallister was not the steady hand at the wheel Manitobans needed during a crisis. He was unstable. His combative and abrasive style and his propensity to lash out when things didn’t go his way undermined government’s ability to respond effectively to the pandemic. He was loath to reach out for help when the province needed it. When asked last year about the prospect of military assistance to help manage the second wave, Pallister said asking for help would be an insult to provincial government staff.
Pallister’s insinuation that First Nations were not real Manitobans when he attacked Ottawa’s vaccine-distribution plan last year, and his accusation a few months later that people in hospital with COVID-19 were there because they refused to get vaccinated (even though many were not yet eligible), caused division when unity was needed. His failure to adequately compensate businesses forced to shut their doors in favour of handing out cheques to seniors for purely political reasons was unforgivable.
There is a moral to this story. Successful leaders listen, consult and collaborate.
Government did some things right during the pandemic, including eventually rolling out a successful COVID-19 vaccine plan after a painfully slow start. The proof-of-vaccine cards were brilliant. But there were far more gaffes than success stories. Chief among them was collapsing the province’s incident command centre prematurely in the summer of 2020 in favour of reopening the economy, failing to adequately protect nursing homes last fall and ignoring expert advice on when to adopt stricter public-health measures (especially prior to the third wave).
The result: Manitoba has the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita in Canada and was the only jurisdiction in the country to airlift critical-care patients to other provinces.
There is a moral to this story. Successful leaders listen, consult and collaborate. They admit when they’re wrong and change course when required. When they don’t, when they think they’re always the smartest person in the room, the results are usually disastrous.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.