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Frost is definitely in air these days

Federal Tories, Manitoba NDP duke it out

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OTTAWA -- There's a cool wind blowing between Broadway and Parliament Hill these days.

Some days it's positively icy.

It's not uncommon for there to be friction, particularly when large amounts of money are involved and opposing political ideologies are at play.

But it's not every day you see federal MPs taking seats on the loges in the Manitoba legislature to issue a stare-down at provincial cabinet ministers over an immigration feud.

It's pretty rare for a premier to accuse the federal government outright of cancelling the immigration settlement agreement as punishment for the province's criticism on other issues.

On Thursday, Selkirk-Interlake Conservative MP James Bezan even used precious time for debating the federal budget implementation bill to criticize the Manitoba budget.

"I want to make a bit of a contrast between what our Conservative government is doing in our budget and what the Manitoba NDP is doing in its provincial budget," he said.

He criticized the gas-tax hike -- which he says will hit rural constituents such as his the hardest -- as well as the province's handling of flood-compensation claims.

NDP MP Jamie Nicholls objected with a point of order, saying the Manitoba budget wasn't relevant to a federal budget speech.

To be fair, Bezan did talk about some of the things the federal budget does.

However, Bezan's answer to Nicholls' objection is perhaps the most telling of all why the relationship between the NDP in Manitoba and the Conservatives in Ottawa has noticeably soured.

"I want to talk about how Manitobans are feeling after the federal and provincial budgets came down and make a comparison so people understand, in Manitoba and right across Canada, the dangers of an NDP government," Bezan said.

We are still more than three years from the next federal election, which is almost like three lifetimes in politics.

But in the past year, the NDP has gone from being the also-ran, perennial fourth-place finisher in Parliament to the official Opposition, which is now leading the governing Conservatives in the polls.

The most recent poll, released Thursday, had the NDP at 34 per cent and the Conservatives at 30 per cent.

Those numbers are not going unnoticed on Broadway or on Parliament Hill.

A Conservative source in Ottawa recently joked he got along with neighbours who are NDP because they have one thing in common: They all hate Liberals.

But in the modern Canadian political climate, it's no longer the Liberals knocking on the Conservatives' majority government.

It's the NDP.

There is a new game in town and it means the provincial NDP has reason to oppose federal Conservatives more often and federal Conservatives have far more reason to take the time to oppose the provincial NDP.

Bezan acknowledged relations between Ottawa and Manitoba are a bit frosty these days.

"When Gary Doer was premier, he did a fantastic job of making sure the doors were open," he said. "That seems to be lacking now."

There were many NDPers who used to criticize Doer for not being hard enough on Ottawa. It's unlikely the same criticism can be said of Selinger, who has been noticeably tougher in recent months on everything from the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly to federal transfer payments.

In some ways, it's refreshing to hear a premier say what he really thinks. There is a sense among some in Manitoba it doesn't matter whether Selinger is contrite with Ottawa or not, the federal government's decisions will be the same. Compromise isn't exactly a hallmark of Stephen Harper's government.

It's also not fair to criticize federal MPs for wading into provincial politics if it's acceptable -- even encouraged -- for the province to lash out at Ottawa.

But there will come a point when it goes too far.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has repeatedly been so critical of the Liberal government in Ontario, even the prime minister told him to back off recently as the repeated jabs were starting to hurt the Ontario economy.

At some point, Ottawa and the province do have to actually work together on certain files and constant bickering will be to the detriment of all of us.

Bezan, too, acknowledges that.

"I hope the partisan stripes that divide us can be removed and we can get back to what is important to Manitobans," he said.

The question may be who will blink first?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2012 A8

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