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Pal's new crib rocks the 'Peg

Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister speaks to the media following the throne speech on Nov. 19.

JOHN WOODS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister speaks to the media following the throne speech on Nov. 19.

"I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sitting on the porch with my family, singing and dancing, down in Mississippi."

Pallister’s new Wellington Crescent mansion.

Enlarge Image

Pallister’s new Wellington Crescent mansion. (PHOTO COURTESY SYVERSON/MONTEYNE ARCHITECTURE INC. WEBSITE)

Pallister’s new Wellington Crescent mansion, which was recently renovated to add more living space and garages.

Enlarge Image

Pallister’s new Wellington Crescent mansion, which was recently renovated to add more living space and garages. ((PHOTO COURTESY SYVERSON/MONTEYNE ARCHITECTURE INC. WEBSITE))

— Steve Martin as Navin R. Johnson.

"The Jerk" is a 1979 film about an imbecilic white man who was adopted by a black family in Mississippi. On his 18th birthday, his family reveals to him he’s really an adopted white man. He then decides to discover the outside world, but is exploited at every turn. Eventually a simple invention brings him a fortune.

Now Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister’s life story isn’t that colourful — and he’s certainly no imbecile — but he’s sure going to great lengths to tell his rags to riches story.

It’s about a man who grew up in a tiny house on the family farm (without indoor plumbing) southwest of Portage la Prairie to owning a $2-million mansion in one of the toniest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg.

And his simple invention? The Pallister Financial Group. Pallister has been in the financial services industry since the age of 25, before entering federal and now provincial politics.

I broke the story of Pallister’s Palace here on Dec. 1 — I didn’t think too much of it, just gave it a few paragraphs and noted the potential political optics of the situation — and it took a few days for the Winnipeg media to pick up on it.

But once CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press got their claws into the juicy morsel, they had a feast.

They mentioned the basketball court, seven-car heated garage with a loft, the Assiniboine River frontage, the $2-million price tag and the $38,000 in property taxes.

Pallister told Winnipeg media the Oct. 25 purchase of the house — the Sifton Residence, a real estate website states, on a prime section of riverfront property and one of Winnipeg’s "finest examples of residential architecture in the arts and crafts tradition" — for his wife and two daughters should be seen as a success story and a lesson of what hard work can accomplish.

He said it shows what good personal money management, a solid education and hard work can do for anyone.

"For somebody to say he really doesn’t care about poor people, well, man, that’s where I grew up. I didn’t have much. I hitchhiked to university. I went to night school for over 20 years," he told the Free Press.

"I have nothing to apologize for there. I’ve worked and my wife Esther has worked for over 30 years, honestly and hard, building up a company from nothing, starting out of my car and we’re selling (the company). This is our investment. We knew we would have this capital and I’m sure not putting it into GICs."

He tried to argue — I thought rather well — that he can use his money smarts to better manage the public purse.

And that wouldn’t be hard, after the NDP’s nosedive into deep debt and a prolonged deficit.

But I digress.

I thought it was ironic that the comparisons between Pallister and American multimillionaire presidential wannabe Mitt Romney were being made at the same time the Tories were in the Manitoba legislature fighting for the rights of low-income families and aboriginal women.

In fact, Pallister’s motion calling for Ottawa to fast-track a bill to extend marital property rights to aboriginal women living on reserves received all-party support.

But c’mon folks, the so-called scandal is really just a story about a guy buying a house. However, it wasn’t good enough for the Winnipeg media just to tell the story straight up, nope.

The "experts" had to be trotted out for comment.

Which is what media does — hey, we do it too at times — when a relatively boring story needs some, umm, juicing up.

Like a story about a man buying a house.

Shannon Sampert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg, told the Free Press it’s disingenuous for Pallister to say success is based on hard work alone.

"For anybody who doesn’t own a $2-million home, does that mean they just didn’t work hard enough?" Sampert told the Free Press. "This is sort of a continuation of this neo-liberal idea that if we just really work hard we’ll all do well and that’s not the case. We all can’t become millionaires.

"It’s kind of insulting to everyone else who works hard, but lives in west Winnipeg in a $150,000 house."

OK, so folks who don’t lift a finger and don’t get anywhere should be applauded? Sheesh.

Over at the University of Manitoba, political studies Prof. Royce Koop told CBC that leaders like Pallister need to be careful with their images, to make sure they don’t appear to be out of touch with the public.

He said they should appeal more to the middle class.

And that’s fine. But I think it would also be disingenuous for Pallister to live in a simple split-level with a cracked foundation and crusty neighbours and hide his wealth.

Pallister said he took exception to comments from those university professors.

"Professors commenting on this issue have both denigrated me in two media outlets," he said. "Neither of whom have ever met me neither of whom ... have ever asked me a single question."

And there are many other politicians across the province who also own rather pricey abodes.

Some rural Tory MLAs have farms to dream of; former Tory premier Gary Filmon had a large and rustic mansion on the banks of the Assiniboine River.

NDP MLA Drew Caldwell has his principal address in Brandon, but he owns a large and elegant second home in Winnipeg’s Crescentwood neighbourhood.

Then there’s Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, whose sprawling historic abode even has a name, Moreland Manor, and too many rooms and fireplaces to count.

In a conference call last week to rural media (which ended up being me alone) Pallister said he wanted to clear up any misunderstandings surrounding the purchase of his home.

"I wanted to take the opportunity to explain ... where I come from. I’m not a silver spoon guy, I grew up in humble circumstances," he said.

He explained that his parents both struggled financially. His mother grew up in a very poor family and eventually became a teacher.

His father had polio and had physical issues all his life

"When I have people making comments such as I’m Romney, well hardly, I’ve never been within miles of a silver spoon in my life," he told me.

I then asked him how many other houses he owns.

"I have extensive holdings globally ... over 80 per cent of my net worth is invested in Manitoba, I own a variety of assets," he said.

That comment thumped me in the side of the head a bit.

This is a very rich man. And he wants to keep some of his private life, well private.

"How I manage the public money is extremely pertinent and relevant," he said. "My record would show that I am very careful when I’m managing public money and that is in the public domain.

"My own personal assets have become this story but there is a limit, I think with that my obligations are to share my net worth and my holdings with every Manitoban."

You just have to think that it’s pretty petty to criticize a man’s hard-won success. Sure, be envious if you have to, but Pallister should be graded now on his performance as Opposition Leader (I’d give him a B+ in the short first session) and not on where he hangs his hat.

Pallister worked hard to get to where he is today.

Now let’s see if he can do something his many Tory predecessors couldn’t — dump the NDP from power and restore some fiscal stability to the province.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 15, 2012

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I too came from a home in southern Ontario with nothing. I left home back in 1952 with nothing in my pocket. Got on the train in Windsor, Ontario and went to Toronto to get a job. The rest is history. I never went to a food bank. I never went looking for low costr housing. I never went for welfare. But, I found a job and worked hard my whole life doing without until I could afford it. To-day, I am happly married. Have sufficient in the bank to take care of us.

So, I fail to understand why others can not do the same. You have to get off your but and find any type of job and work hard to advance.

James B

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"I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sitting on the porch with my family, singing and dancing, down in Mississippi."

— Steve Martin as Navin R. Johnson.

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"I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sitting on the porch with my family, singing and dancing, down in Mississippi."

— Steve Martin as Navin R. Johnson.

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