Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Flagging NDP have no margin for error now
Can't afford faux pas given ebbing support
Education Minister James Allum had just risen from his seat in the legislature on Wednesday when question period, once again, started to go sideways.
Allum was supposed to congratulate local student organizers of Pink Shirt Day, a national anti-bullying campaign that was hosted in numerous Winnipeg schools. However, Allum couldn't resist getting in a shot at the opposition.
Right at the top of his remarks, Allum referenced the relative lack of intelligence of "members opposite," the parliamentary term for MLAs that sit in opposition. This in turn prompted howling from the aforementioned members opposite, who drowned out most of Allum's congratulatory remarks.
Fortunately, everyone knows the best way of promoting respect and tolerance in our schools is a good old-fashioned, mean-spirited shouting match.
It would be easy to dismiss Allum's thrust and the opposition parry as just another QP brouhaha. The daily confrontation between opposition and government already has a well-earned reputation as the place where intelligent debate goes to die. Except there is growing evidence the bickering and recriminations are starting to take their toll. Particularly, it seems, on the NDP government.
Consider, if you will, the recent tribulations of Health Minister Erin Selby, who two weeks ago foolishly accused the former Tory government of allowing infants to die at the Health Sciences Centre, a reference to infant deaths at the troubled HSC pediatric cardiac surgery unit in the mid-1990s.
Unfortunately for Selby, this tragedy was fully investigated and, as history shows, was never blamed on elected officials. After some of the families of those children objected, Selby was forced to apologize.
It's important to note Selby launched her allegations at Tory MLAs during budget estimates, at which she was being grilled about her spending plan for 2014-15. In particular, opposition MLAs wanted information about the botched STARS air ambulance program, recently eviscerated by Manitoba's auditor general.
Rather than focus on the matter at hand, Selby kept dredging up ghosts of Tory governments past. This is a tried and true tactic used by many governing parties, including the Tories when they were in power in the 1990s. Opposition MLAs criticize a minister, and the minister points out how bad opposition MLAs were when they were in power.
Transcripts of the session show that, prior to the exchange over infant deaths, some actual questions were asked and answered. But there was also a lot of meaningless partisan banter, capped off by Selby's egregious reference to HSC.
Again, it would be easy to blame this entire mess on a relatively inexperienced minister going a step too far in using a standard defensive strategy. Except this is starting to become an all-too common occurrence.
This government seems to find a way of taking the longest, most arduous route between two points. And in doing so, exponentially increases the amount of grief it generates.
Consider the government's torturous, dysfunctional efforts to explain its plan to raise the PST to fund infrastructure. From the get-go, this was a painful exercise to watch. It took a full year for Premier Greg Selinger to forge a coherent message -- far too late for many Manitobans to buy in, if recent poll results are any indication.
Then there was Selinger's handling of the Christine Melnick affair. Selinger and his staff confirmed in the summer of 2012 Melnick had lied to the legislature about asking a senior bureaucrat to invite participants for a protest at the legislature, a violation of restrictions against involving civil servants in political activities.
And yet, Selinger waited until October 2013 to remove Melnick from cabinet. In the intervening period, Selinger was forced to deflect repeated questions about the Melnick incident, a strategy that made him look as if he was trying to hide something.
Selinger said he did not act earlier because he did not want to disrupt an internal investigation of the matter. Almost no one who followed the story sympathized with that decision.
These stories -- the PST, Melnick and Selby -- vary in their specific details and impact. However, they are connected by a strong narrative about a government that can't seem to stop blowing itself up.
As we approach a spring 2016 election, this government has no capacity to absorb needless body shots. When a government is riding high in the polls, it has wiggle room for a faux pas here, or a misstep there.
When that same government is sinking fast in the polls and facing chronic policy challenges such as, say, a nagging budget deficit, there is no room for ministers to accuse their predecessors of infanticide, or question the intelligence of opposition MLAs.
And with each successive mistake, it seems more and more likely members of the NDP government will be the last ones to figure out what's going on.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 A7
Updated on Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 8:00 AM CDT: Replaces photo
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