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Manitoba’s next premier has a personal image problem

Manitoba voters couldn't forgive Greg Selinger for betraying his promise not to raise the provincial sales tax. And on Tuesday, they threw his NDP party out of power, in favour of the Progressive Conservatives and their leader, Brian Pallister, someone who arrives in office with serious issues of his own when it comes to trust and honesty.

Mr. Pallister campaigned on a traditional conservative platform, promising to halt the NDP's profligate spending habits, while maintaining public services. Cut spending while losing nothing; it is the campaign elixir that centre-right parties dangle in front of the public but often do not deliver. Usually, it's the vow to leave services untouched that eventually takes a back seat to fiscal imperatives.

Fortunately for Mr. Pallister, he has a fairly healthy economy with which to work, although it has become more fragile in recent months. The Conference Board of Canada downgraded its 2016 economic growth forecast by half a per cent to 2.0 per cent, but is predicting it will rise to 3.0 per cent in 2017. That helps enormously when your goal is to bring a provincial budget back into balance. The word GOAL should be in all caps.

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After once saying he'd bring the budget into balance by 2014-15, Mr. Selinger had to concede that wasn't going to happen until 2019-20, at the earliest. (The shortfall for the current fiscal year is forecast to be $773-million). While these deficits always drew heavy criticism from Mr. Pallister, he has not made a commitment to balance the budget inside his first mandate. He needs to see the numbers first, he's said.

One area to watch will be in health care. Mr. Pallister has said his government is going to review everything, prompting the NDP to suggest during the campaign that the Conservatives are going to bring in privatized medicine. While the Conservatives have denied this, Mr. Pallister has said that Manitobans shouldn't have to go to the United States to get treatment because they are frustrated with waiting times in their home province.

This has led to accusations that he would be fine with private clinics operating in the province, as they do in other provinces. It will be interesting to see where he goes with this.

Beyond policy matters, though, Mr. Pallister has a personal image problem that he is going to have to tend to immediately. While not the most natural politician there ever was, or the most comfortable around the media, the premier-designate was even more awkward and evasive than usual during the dying days of the campaign. It was over a vacation estate he owns in Costa Rica.

Originally, the NDP tried to leverage the release of the Panama Papers by associating Mr. Pallister and his Costa Rica property with the broader story about how the rich are using offshore accounts as tax havens. That accusation never stuck, as Mr. Pallister was fairly upfront (as best we know) about how much money he had invested in his vacation retreat.

The story may have ended there had the CBC not started digging into how much time Mr. Pallister had actually spent at his holiday home since taking over as PC Leader in the summer of 2012. It was a way more than he had ever let on: 240 days, in fact, or 18.2 per cent of this time.

That wasn't the worst of it.

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The documents showed he was in Costa Rica during the Manitoba floods of 2014, a natural disaster that incited a state of emergency. Reporters wondered at the time where the Conservative Leader was; his party wouldn't say. He eventually surfaced two weeks later to answer questions about the catastrophe.

He told the Winnipeg Free Press he had been attending a family wedding outside the province. As it turns out, that wasn't true at all. The CBC documents showed he was in Costa Rica. When confronted with the contradiction during the campaign, the leader said it was an "oversight and unfortunate lapse in memory." Right.

On another occasion when away for an extended period, he told the media he had been in North Dakota. Again, the CBC's documents showed he was in Costa Rica.

When he tried to defend his dreadfully faulty memory, Mr. Pallister said it was because he wanted to protect the privacy of his wife and daughter. It was a stock tactic often used by politicians who find themselves in this type of situation; when all else fails, bring your family into it so anyone questioning you looks like an unsympathetic jerk.

The only person who looks bad in this story is Manitoba's next Premier. It is not the way you want to start a position where trust is the most important quality. Brian Pallister has made a tough job even tougher.

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