Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister (Image: Brian Pallister/Facebook)

Watching Jason Kenney swallow his tail this week was instructive. He reversed everything he’s said for months, while denying any error. When that didn’t go so well, he got bellowing-level mad at anyone pointing it out.

It’s not easy being a right-wing conservative premier in COVID times. The trap they’re caught in is that a global pandemic isn’t the best circumstance for invoking libertarian individualism and the all-purpose value of the private sector, then standing aside. Active government has its problems, but someone has to do something right now, not just wait for the invisible hand to generate profitable solutions. Luckily there are enough of them to let us compare responses.

Manitoba’s Brian Pallister definitely has liftoff. For those unfamiliar with him, he’s a strange dude. He spends four to eight weeks a year at his palatial villa on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. He doesn’t even have email there. His “office” says it lets him think deep thoughts about Manitoba and write speeches. And he has no intention of changing.

This obstinacy is his secret sauce. “You don’t need to like me,” he says. In fact he seems to prefer it. He’s “the guy who’s stealing Christmas to keep you safe” and he “did not get into politics for the adulation.”

Evidently, He’s in touch with his gnarled feelings. He knows people dislike him — he has the lowest approval rating among premiers — and he looks a bit like he dislikes himself. But he’s gonna save them anyway. Then, next day, in case he won some grudging admiration among his enemies, he maligned Indigenous peoples for getting the vaccine first, which puts “Manitobans” — i.e., non-Indigenous citizens — at “the back of the line.”

He even managed to slip in an offensive metaphor while warning that vaccines won’t nullify the need for other unpleasant measures: “The cavalry’s not here yet.” There’s something artful about his will to offend.

Memo to Jason Kenney: call Pallister. For weeks Kenney resisted a lockdown on two grounds: it would hurt both the economy and personal freedoms. By the time he gave in this week, he had to add a mask mandate. Oh, the humiliation. When reporters mildly noted this, he accused them of representing the NDP — who’ve pulled ahead in the polls — and Alberta-bashing, which is just weird.

He said he didn’t get into politics to put limits on people — a much higher bar than not being in it for the adulation. It rang with whininess and self-pity. That’s why I suggest Kenney call Pallister: to learn how not to give a damn. Of course Pallister can always bugger off to Shangri-La. Kenney would probably have to settle for Hawaii. Being right-wing premier of Alberta wasn’t supposed to be this hard. It wasn’t supposed to be hard at all.

Doug Ford, I confess, eludes me. How has Ontario stayed so well ahead on the COVID stats? Ford’s a voluble conservative, but his right-wing traits are cheapness — he had the billions of dollars needed to reduce class sizes to 15, but preferred hoarding it to lower provincial debt — and cronyism. Neither is right-wing trendy. He mouths the lingo but even that’s old-fashioned, like “unleash the private sector.” He’s more a right-wing populist than an ideological conservative.

He’s less about personal freedoms like the right to be racist or not wear a mask, than he is about “the little guy,” by which he means small business owners, never their employees. That’s who his heart “goes out to.” I continue to ponder these mysteries. Who ever thought of Ontario politics as enigmatic?

The conservative ideologue who gets a pass is national leader Erin O’Toole. He’s free to jabber about needing a plan to deal with COVID, without ever suggesting what that might be other than, er, unleashing the mighty private S and letting Canadians work rather than take government handouts. Nice rhetoric if you can afford it — and if you have no actual power to exercise, you can. The provincial premiers are the ones constrained by power and therefore by reality; their strains and differences show it.

They should all have a good cry together, a group hug and then a collective activity to buck them up. Board games maybe, or adult colouring books.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Brian Pallister/Facebook


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.