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PC leader keeps far from flood fight's crucial front lines

Potential premier oddly avoiding disaster area

It is the biggest story in Manitoba, and yet not big enough to draw the presence of Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.

Over the past three weeks, the province has suffered floods rivalling the surges experienced in 2011, one of the worst flood years ever.

And yet, the man who would be premier -- and leader of a party that has consistently led mid-term polls -- has kept a very low profile. So much so that he is now conspicuous by his absence.

Pallister toured flood-threatened regions in the spring. And he made an unannounced trip to Portage on July 18. But other than that, it has been hard to find the Tory leader anywhere near the front lines of the flood fight.

In an interview, Pallister said he did make several other, unpublicized trips into the flood zone over the last month, but did not provide details of when and where. His office declined to provide details of his itinerary over that period. No matter how you cut it, this is an odd strategy for any politician who aspires to be premier of a province.

It is considered standard procedure for prominent elected officials to be seen out in the thick of a natural disaster. These trips afford politicians an opportunity to see first-hand the extent of the disaster. It also provides a morale boost to those suffering the most.

Premier Greg Selinger has been almost constantly out in the flood zone. Even when his mother passed away earlier this month, Selinger barely took any time off from flood duties.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper undertook a well-publicized tour of the flood zone with Manitoba's senior cabinet minister, Shelly Glover. Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also visited to lend his support.

Pallister, however, said he made a conscious decision to avoid a high-profile tour of flood-ravaged areas lest he be accused of trying to score political points during a crisis.

Pallister was very careful to avoid criticizing Selinger directly, although he frequently referenced the difference between politicians who use natural disasters for "photo opportunities" and those who focus on ways of protecting the province against future floods.

"Manitobans are not asking for photo ops," Pallister said. "What they're asking for is foresight."

In making this statement, Pallister is reacting to the events of 2011, when the NDP deliberately chose to get Selinger out of the legislature and into flooded areas to raise his profile.

Despite having become premier in 2009, Selinger was not well known or liked by the electorate. With an election later that same year, NDP strategists decided Selinger should become the face of the province's flood-fighting efforts. That strategy gave Selinger a bump in the polls that he translated into a majority win in the fall election.

Having seen that tactic work once, it's no surprise Selinger is once again hip deep in sandbags and muddy flood water.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest publicity is the only reason a politician would visit the flood zone.

Pallister agreed that as premier, Selinger must be on the front line of the flood fight. That Manitobans expect their premier to be out on the dikes sharing the stress of this disaster.

Remarkably, Pallister does not accept that he, as someone who wants to be premier, has the same obligation. "I am reluctant to make political hay out of something like this," he said.

Pallister may be reluctant, but party insiders are less so. Pallister's absence from the flood zones has been noticed by many in the rank and file, and the reviews are not good.

Many believe this is another example of how Pallister's greatest attribute, an unyielding confidence, is often also his downfall. It causes him to reject or ignore the input of trusted advisers and supporters, even when it's most valuable.

For example, in 2012 he was warned against buying a $2-million, 9,000-square-foot home in River Heights after becoming leader. He was told the optics would create a needless distraction at a time when he was just being introduced to Manitobans. Pallister heard the input, but ignored it. The NDP is still salivating at the thought of bringing up that home in the next election campaign.

Of course, success has a habit of translating "obstinate" into "firm and fearless." Unfortunately, Pallister hasn't really won anything yet. And that makes his decision to avoid the front line of the flood fight so mystifying.

In his Twitter biography, Pallister says he prides himself on "standing up for Manitobans each and every day."

Not to sound too philosophical, but if no one can see you at their time of greatest need, how can they be sure you're standing up at all?

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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