POLITICS

Manitoba PCs will focus on business, not policy, at weekend meeting

10/26/2012 03:48 EDT | Updated 12/26/2012 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba Tories are gathering this weekend behind closed doors to discuss ways to boost the party's popularity and reconnect with grassroots members.

It's the latest move by new leader Brian Pallister to focus on internal rebuilding rather than making public policy pronouncements.

"You don't see the foundation on a building, but that doesn't mean it's not important. And the foundational discussions we're having this weekend as a party are really critical to the super-strength we need to build going forward," he said Friday.

Pallister, who was acclaimed party leader in July, is working to re-engage members who were disappointed by the Tories' performance in last year's election. They won 19 of the 57 legislature seats — the same number they had in the previous election. Many grumbled openly about being surprised by a controversial campaign promise to run several years of deficits. The election results prompted former leader Hugh McFadyen to resign.

Pallister has toured the province to speak to party members in recent weeks. He has also asked his caucus members to help rebuild constituency associations and reach out to people in areas held by other parties.

At Saturday's annual general meeting, the party is to discuss a resolution that calls for electronic newsletters to be sent to all members on a regular basis. Another resolution calls on the party to provide written updates to constituency associations about whether ideas approved at party meetings are actually being implemented.

The rebuilding effort has meant Pallister has not been in the public spotlight very often.

"He hasn't been high-profile by any means. It's all been submerged and behind-the-scenes," said Paul Thomas, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.

The low profile means Pallister has yet to make an impact on many voters. Despite being a provincial cabinet minister in the 1990s, and a member of Parliament after that, a recent poll suggested almost half of Manitobans haven't formed an opinion of him.

In the Probe Research poll, done for the Winnipeg Free Press, 48 per cent of respondents said they were either unfamiliar with Pallister or needed more time to fully assess his performance.

The survey also suggested that support for the Tories and the NDP government — at 38 and 45 per cent respectively — was virtually unchanged since the previous Probe poll in June. The new survey involved 1,000 telephone respondents between Sept. 19 and Oct. 14. It is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Pallister has taken a public stance on some issues since becoming leader. He has called for an end to public subsidies for political parties and has promised that a Tory government would raise the threshold at which people start paying income tax. But for the most part, he wants to avoid jumping out in front of the party's grassroots.

"Our members haven't had a chance to be really involved, at least in the last number of months, in any kind of shaping of the agenda of the party. And I'm very big on that happening," Pallister said.

"To jump out in front on a number of policy issues ... I think is premature."

There is no word yet on when the party will hold a policy convention, which is normally open to the media and observers from other parties. Saturday's meeting is to focus on internal party business, although Pallister said that might change in the future.

"I'm inheriting a structure that I understand has been in place for some time and that was always the case. We'll take a look at it going forward," he said.

"I'm not afraid of having people observe our proceedings, and frankly, in this day and age, I expect there will be tweets going out as we are having discussions."

The Tories weren't the only ones to hold a closed-door meeting. Premier Greg Selinger was scheduled to speak at an NDP fundraiser Friday night. The event was not open to the media, the premier's office said.