Opinion

He may not be the biggest thorn in Premier Brian Pallister's side, but Tory MLA Shannon Martin is a thorn, nonetheless.

He may not be the biggest thorn in Premier Brian Pallister's side, but Tory MLA Shannon Martin is a thorn, nonetheless.

The McPhillips MLA, one of the diligent worker bees on the backbenches of the Pallister government, has quietly become one of the Manitoba premier's foremost critics.

Following MLA Eileen Clarke's July 14 resignation from the post of Indigenous and northern affairs minister, Martin became the first Tory to break ranks. He said Clarke's decision — after Pallister tried to defend the benevolent intentions of colonial settlers — was "shitty" but "understandable."

After new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere's misguided attempt to defend residential schools, Martin was at it again. In a July 15 tweet that hung Lagimodiere out to dry, Martin described residential schools as "re-education camps, designed not to benefit Indigenous peoples, but to erase their cultures (and) in too many instances, their lives."

McPhillips MLA Shannon Martin (left) and Premier Brian Pallister.  (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

McPhillips MLA Shannon Martin (left) and Premier Brian Pallister. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Martin is not the most prominent member of the Tory government to speak up. Conservation Minister Sarah Guillemard and Families Minister Rochelle Squires both posted comments on social media clearly critical of Pallister and Lagimodiere.

But he has been, for lack of a better term, the most consistently visible dissident.

To date, Martin has refused all offers to get him to explain his master plan. However, all evidence seems to suggest, based on a reasonable assumption Pallister will retire before the next election, Martin is angling to run as the PC candidate in Midland, a diehard Tory riding south of Winnipeg held by Blaine Pedersen. 

Pedersen left his post as infrastructure minister and said he will retire once the next election is called.

Perhaps not a coincidence, Martin’s social media channels are full of posts from communities in Midland.

From a selfie with Morris Mayor Scott Crick, to a picture of himself standing in front of the "Welcome to Carman" sign, Martin seems to be in full campaign mode.

If Martin is giving off the impression somehow he's owed something in Midland, he comes by it honestly.

Prior to the 2019 election, Martin represented Morris, a solidly Tory seat eviscerated by electoral boundary redistribution, with most of its territory ending up in Midland. A close friend of the premier, Pedersen got the nod in Midland, forcing Martin to contest a new seat in Winnipeg no other Tory wanted: McPhillips.

McPhillips was nearly a political suicide mission. Dominated by a big chunk of NDP-friendly, north end Winnipeg, McPhillips is also home to Seven Oaks General Hospital, which lost its ER in the controversial health-care reorganization plan Pallister unleashed in his first term.

Remarkably, Martin would win McPhillips by just 105 votes. Despite this accomplishment, he was overlooked in multiple cabinet shuffles and recently complained to colleagues in the Tory caucus Pallister has not actually talked with him directly since election night.

Not every backbencher is cabinet material, and the COVID-19 pandemic obviously played a role in limiting face time between the premier and caucus. But Pallister is famously aloof and, over time, that style of leadership does have consequences.

Regardless of how long Pallister remains Tory leader, it is unclear Martin will get a shot at Midland. 

Pallister, who has not been seen in public since the Lagimodiere debacle, is only one more catastrophic news conference away from turning a trickle of dissent into a full–fledged gusher.

Tory sources say that Pedersen promised Martin he would be welcome back in Midland in the next election. However, it is unclear whether Martin will survive long enough in the Tory party to take advantage of that offer. 

While almost any decent Tory candidate can hang on to Midland — even in the event the NDP live up to current poll results and challenge to form government — only Martin could give the Tories a fighting chance to retain the Winnipeg seat. 

One might expect that if regaining Midland was his true goal, Martin would be maintaining a low profile in the late stages of the Pallister era. His decision to publicly challenge Pallister means that instead, Martin could be charging headlong towards his Steven Fletcher moment

Elected in the Tory tide in 2016, Fletcher wore out his welcome in just over a year, with a combination of unbridled criticism of his own government and irrational antics in the legislature. Pallister kicked Fletcher out of caucus in June 2017, effectively ending his provincial political career.

Following his ejection, nobody came to Fletcher's defence, largely because no one wanted to tangle with a leader who had just captured one the largest majorities in the province's history. And because Fletcher was not liked by other Tories.

Although Martin's acts of dissent could be grounds for ejection, it should be noted he has several advantages Fletcher did not.

First, following Clarke's resignation, Pallister is suddenly a leader on the defensive. The iron-fisted mystique he employed over cabinet and caucus has been eroded. He is, at this moment, in no position to dish out punishment to a rowdy backbencher.

Second, it's possible other Tories will break ranks. Pallister, who has not been seen in public since the Lagimodiere debacle, is only one more catastrophic news conference away from turning a trickle of dissent into a full-fledged gusher.

A month ago, it was impossible to imagine any Tory would have the courage or temerity to publicly criticize Pallister. Now, Tories know not only can you stand up to the premier, but you can live to tell the tale.

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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