Opinion

Mr. Blue had already been out of Manitoba for a couple of weeks when he got the news that he was in violation of a new and harshly worded edict from Premier Brian Pallister.

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Mr. Blue had already been out of Manitoba for a couple of weeks when he got the news that he was in violation of a new and harshly worded edict from Premier Brian Pallister.

Issued hastily on Monday night, the new commandment declared that any government appointee who travels "for leisure purposes" outside Manitoba could be terminated from their positions. People like Mr. Blue.

A life-long Manitoba Progressive Conservative, Mr. Blue, who asked that his real name not be used, has organized campaigns, recruited candidates and raised money. Currently, he sits on the board of an arm's-length government entity, appointed by Pallister.

And right now, he also happens to be at his vacation property in a popular, warm-weather destination.

What did Mr. Blue think when he found out he was at risk of suffering the wrath of the premier and the indignity of a public termination of his patronage appointment?

"It totally blindsided me and pissed me off to be frank," Mr. Blue said in an interview Wednesday.

"The fact is, I'm not doing anything illegal. If they wanted to stop people from travelling, then they should have closed the border and be done with it. I'd be totally OK if they did that. But threatening all the people who have supported him and helped him get where he is today, that's not right."

Nobody should be vacationing outside Manitoba right now. But Pallister's decision to threaten his political appointees with termination is still a curious decision. It is, at the same time, both surprising and not all that surprising.

Premier Brian Pallister's decision to threaten his political appointees with termination is both surprising and not surprising. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister's decision to threaten his political appointees with termination is both surprising and not surprising. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It was somewhat surprising because Pallister spent the better part of the previous week defending Wayne McWhirter, a Tory government appointee to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority board, after the Free Press reported he was in Arizona at his vacation property.

Pallister initially said he would not punish McWhirter because as an appointee, he was essentially a "volunteer." Health Minister Heather Stefanson also dismissed suggestions McWhirter should be removed from his position.

And then, over the course of last weekend, Pallister pivoted 180 degrees.

On Monday, he directed his staff to issue a statement just before 6 p.m. that he would punish any government appointee with termination if they travelled outside Manitoba "for leisure purposes." No other details of the policy were provided.

What changed over the weekend?

No one knows for sure. Pallister has not been available to the media since he issued the edict, but logic would dictate that there were two important developments.

The first one we know for sure: McWhirter resigned his post with the WRHA after talking with Pallister. A retired accountant, it's not surprising that McWhirter would be unwilling to ride out the controversy over his travel plans. But as soon as he decided to resign, it appears Pallister began to plot a new course.

The second development is not confirmed but given the order of events this week, it's quite likely the premier learned that more of his order-in-council appointees either had travelled recently or were still out of the province on leisure trips. Rather than wait for news media to reveal other high-profile appointees who had left the province against the advice of public health officials, he decided to lay down the law.

How quickly did he change course on this issue and how much thought did he put into his new proclamation? His statement Monday was only 53 words long and left out a lot of details about exactly who was affected by the edict — and when it went into effect.

Wayne McWhirter quit as chairman of the WRHA after taking heat for travelling to Arizona. (WRHA)

Wayne McWhirter quit as chairman of the WRHA after taking heat for travelling to Arizona. (WRHA)

On Wednesday, two days after the new policy was announced, the premier's office was asked for those additional details. Given the high-profile nature of this policy, those details should have been available right away.

Instead, it would take an entire working day to get some clarity.

At 5 p.m., nearly two full days after the policy was unveiled, the premier's office eventually confirmed the order affected 1,025 "order-in-council board members" and about 375 direct-appointment staff including "deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers, senior legal officers, medical officers, the chief veterinary officer, senior officers as well as political staff in the ministerial offices, executive council and the priorities and planning secretariat."

It was also confirmed the edict applies to any departures on or after Feb. 1.

The difficulty in getting details on the travel edict strongly suggests that Pallister decided to make the announcement Monday before he had figured out exactly who was impacted. That's an unusual way to introduce a new policy that has dire consequences for some of the most important people in government. But it's also not out of character for this premier.

This is a premier who is constantly changing his and his government's position on all manner of important issues. Statements made one day can easily evaporate the next. Pallister brushes off questions about his chronic inconsistency as mischievous attempts by journalists to tarnish his reputation.

On this issue, however, Pallister's shoot-first-and-release-details-second approach has the potential to inflict some real and meaningful damage to his political brand.

In one fell swoop, he has angered a high-powered constituency of senior government employees and the rank and file of his own party. You know, the people he regularly taps for political appointments.

As confident as Pallister appears, no political leader does that much damage in such a short period of time without suffering consequences. Nobody.

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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