PUBLISHED MARCH 27, 2018 UPDATED 18 HOURS AGO
When we last left Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, he had just finished emerging from the darkness of a New Mexico desert with a broken arm and lacerations everywhere. He had taken a fall in a ravine while alone on a hike late last year. As night closed in, he found himself with no flashlight, no cellphone and little hope he’d make it out of his predicament any time soon.
Luckily, he would be rescued by a state trooper who’d been alerted by the Premier’s wife, Esther, that her husband was overdue from his outing. The police would later admonish the Progressive Conservative Party leader for not being better equipped for his trek.
Today, Mr. Pallister finds himself bruised and battered once more, this time politically. How long it takes him to recover from his latest wounds remains to be seen.
Last week, the chairman of the board of Manitoba Hydro, Sanford Riley, and eight directors resigned en masse. (Only one director stayed.) This, after it was made clear to Mr. Riley he was going to be shuffled to another board after only two years on the job. The reason: The Premier wanted to “refresh” the leadership of his Crown corporations. Mr. Riley was stunned. He’d been trying for months with little success to get a meeting with the Premier to talk about Manitoba Hydro’s monumental challenges. But it was also little secret that the Premier was not thrilled that the Hydro chair had been so public – some say alarmist – about the troubles at the electric utility, characterizing them as almost existential in nature. (“A ticking time bomb,” he called them.)
The board resignations allowed Mr. Pallister to kill a proposed payment of nearly $70-million that Hydro was planning to make to the Manitoba Metis Federation in exchange for its co-operation in a couple of projects the utility was undertaking. The Premier cast the payment as “hush money” to a “special interest group,” which infuriated the Métis federation. Mr. Pallister inferred they had no right to demand any money for their co-operation, which suggested to the Métis leadership that he didn’t recognize the land rights of Indigenous peoples won in numerous court rulings.
The departure of Mr. Riley and his board colleagues ignited a flurry of recriminations and counterrecriminations, mainly between the Premier and his former board chair, a Manitoba business legend who is also a hugely influential player (see donor/fundraiser) in the party Mr. Pallister leads. It’s hard to recall someone turning on his political master in the way Mr. Riley did here, calling the Premier out for spreading untruths (in his opinion) about the circumstances that prompted the resignations.
Why the Premier would want to pick a nasty fight with such an influential figure and heretofore ally has left many scratching their heads. Then again, this is Brian Pallister, as unusual a politician as you’ll find in this country: a lone wolf not particularly loved by his cabinet or caucus, whose personal popularity regularly trails that of his party. When the political heat has often been the hottest, he’s retreated to his sanctuary in Costa Rica, unconcerned about the optics of fleeing flak and Winnipeg’s bitter cold to work on his tan.
Manitoba Hydro has a new chair and four new board members. But the problems Mr. Riley warned about have not gone away.
Some Hydro-related projects have gone massively overbudget. The utility is $16-billion in debt, a number expected to climb to $25-billion in the next few years. Mr. Riley had earlier asked Mr. Pallister for a massive injection of cash to stabilize the utility’s debt-to-equity ratio. (He was turned down.) Some believe Mr. Riley has overstated the utility’s difficulties, applying private-sector standards to a public-sector outfit. He wanted a series of rate hikes of nearly 10 per cent to address the financial deficiencies, something that was never going to fly politically. (He was turned down.)
Whether you accept Mr. Riley’s more distressing picture of the state of affairs at Manitoba Hydro, or the view of those who say it’s not quite as bad as depicted, there is no question the utility is engulfed in serious concern.
Now Mr. Pallister’s political problems are even worse. Not only has he angered one of the province’s most powerful figures and a key party benefactor, he’s also infuriated and alienated an Indigenous community whose co-operation he’s going to need down the road. It’s quite a predicament he’s found himself in, most of it of his own making.