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Can Pallister be an MVP in politics, too?

When you've been a jock most of your life, I guess you can't help yourself.

For instance, ask 6-foot-8 former university basketball star Brian Pallister about the state of his province and the Manitoba Premier will use an analogy that takes him to a dark moment in his life.

When he had a sports injury.

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He hurt his shoulder and it looked as if he might not ever be able to play the game he loved again. But he dedicated himself to rehabbing the faulty joint, and after 18 months of much sweat and tears, he was playing again. Not just playing, but winning most improved player awards and most valuable player titles.

It was at this point I stopped him to ask how this applied to his province's current economic condition.

"Manitoba is injured," he said loudly, seemingly incredulous I didn't make the connection immediately. "We're injured, we're vulnerable. We've had two credit downgrades. We're sending money to happy Toronto money lenders every day that should be here helping us with education and health-care costs."

And how does the province get out of this bind? The same way he overcame his own personal setback years earlier.

"Therapy, hard work, discipline, focus, never give up, keep your eye on the prize," he said. You get the idea.

Any conversation with the often-embattled Manitoba Premier is a fascinating journey, one that is apt to take many twists and turns.

At one point, he got up from his office chair to walk over to a cabinet in his legislative office to pull out some books. The open door exposed an extremely healthy liquor collection. I'm sure the job is not without its stresses. While Mr. Pallister has brought some woes on himself – Costa Rica anyone? – he has also inherited a fiscal mess. The deficit left behind by the long-reigning NDP government is approaching $1-billion.

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In one of the last remaining provinces where unions still hold sway, the plethora of bargaining units and byzantine contracts are a burden on provincial resources.

One example that Mr. Pallister cited was around job descriptions for janitors in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. There are, believe it or not, 95 different classifications around this one position, he said.

"How does a manager manage when his janitorial maintenance Class 3 guy goes off and he has to find a Class 3 guy to replace him because he's not allowed to use a Class 2 guy. It's crazy." He has sworn to fix this.

Unions are clearly in the Conservative Premier's sight lines as his government prepares to table its second budget on April 11, a year after being elected. Mr. Pallister likes to talk about how he is "an old union guy" himself, but he needs major concessions from a group that mostly did well during a 17-year stretch of NDP rule. Now it will almost certainly be a period of sacrifice.

There is even talk about reopening existing contracts, although I doubt Mr. Pallister needs or wants the fight that would incite. But public-sector unions should be prepared for years of zero increases.

The Conservatives have already taken aim at the administrative levels of a vast bureaucracy that has been built up over the years. Mr. Pallister has imposed a 15-per-cent reduction on the number of senior management at all Crown corporations.

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Health authorities have been asked to cut tens of millions of dollars in spending, forcing them to openly consider privatizing services such as MRI scans and cataract operations, in clear defiance of the Canada Health Act.

Even with the stern moves he has already made, and the further austerity measures expected to be announced in the budget, Mr. Pallister says it will take eight years to return the province to balance under his plan.

It might have been sooner, but during the last election he promised to cut the provincial sales tax by one percentage point, to 7 per cent from 8 per cent. It's not a pledge he's prepared to go back on, given recent political history.

His predecessor in the job, the NDP's Greg Selinger, never recovered politically from raising the PST after telling voters during an election campaign he wouldn't.

"No one should misrepresent this as anything but a monumental challenge," Mr. Pallister told me.

"In the short term, it is going to cause hurt and people are going to feel it."

But soon they'll be up playing again, and soaring to great heights. Or something like that.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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