Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politicians used to try to make a splash; now they're more focused on splash pads

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Last year, teeter-totters dominated Manitoba politics.

Over the summer, which feels so long ago now, it seemed every cabinet minister in the Manitoba government was out in the sunny suburbs announcing a few thousand dollars for splash pads and twirly slides. Every week brought a new photo-op next to the monkey bars. At one point, after I made a snide tweet about the merry-go-round of announcements about merry-go-rounds, a senior New Democrat half-jokingly replied it was great to have a provincial government "focused most on what matters to Manitoba families."

Since then, teeter-totters have become my mental byword for parochial, small-fry, short-term, uncontroversial government policies. And every level of government is along for the ride.

Just last month, we saw Mayor Sam Katz call a press conference to tout free transit on New Year's Eve, an annual program typically announced by an email to reporters. Also last month we saw Shelly Glover, Canada's new heritage minister and the province's voice in cabinet, host a fancy press conference to announce pretty much the same funding her government gives Winnipeg arts groups every single year. Then, in her year-end interview with the Free Press, Glover took some fun swipes at the provincial NDP but ventured no new ideas, mused on not one policy option, floated no trial balloons, even though she's an expert on one of Winnipeg's thorniest problems: crime. Premier Greg Selinger's year-end interview was even more shallow.

This is politics in Winnipeg, in Manitoba and across the country these days, as we gear up for another electoral cycle -- a civic election this fall, a federal election the next and a provincial election a few months after that. It's the politics of the small, the self-interested and the safe.

It's that way because it works, especially here, where small stuff plays perfectly to Manitoba's pragmatic, centrist nature -- our "temperate" political culture, as University of Manitoba political scientist Jared Wesley calls it.

The strategy of small is at work everywhere. It worked for U.S. President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, according to a gossipy new book about the campaign, though in that country, small means significant health insurance reform. It's worked for the thrice-elected Katz, which is why it took us a decade to build one-third of one rapid-transit line. And it's the strategy Prime Minister Stephen Harper will use for the next two years as he musters what Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson recently called micro-initiatives and targeted, focus-grouped, mini-tax breaks to woo back the tiny 10 per cent of the electorate Harper needs to win another majority.

It is a strategy perfected by the province's most successful premier, the barometer of political smarts in Manitoba, Gary Doer. Even when he was among the most popular premiers in the country, hoarding the kind of political capital Premier Greg Selinger can now only dream of, Doer made mostly small, incremental, inoffensive tweaks to existing stuff. And, as the senior NDPer joked, the provincial government has continued to focus on what it thinks matters to Manitoba families, especially Manitoba families in target ridings such as Southdale, where voters might remember who built the new climbing wall in their local playground come election time.

Now, the relatively healthy budgets of the mid-noughts have evaporated and all levels of government are in a post-recession cash crunch. The only bold promises they are making involve deficit-reduction targets. We could have done more than teeter-totters a few years ago, but now there really isn't much money for anything risky or controversial. And politicians, who surely hoped to do more than re-roof community clubs and cut taxes by an indistinguishable smidge, have lost the ability to sell anything more to a cynical public, feeding instead into voters' backyard self-interest until teeter-totters are all we expect.

Meanwhile, we've got big problems. This country and this province could be leaders in climate change -- humanity's single most pressing issue -- but we're not. A few blocks from city hall, there exists a level of entrenched, generational poverty that squanders remarkable amounts of human potential. We have overflowing jails and a court system at the breaking point. We haven't fixed the daycare shortage, the midwife shortage, the affordable-housing shortage, the ER waits, the mental health crisis, the municipal infrastructure deficit, Lake Winnipeg, our fractured national relationship with indigenous people. The list of big stuff, SOLVABLE big stuff, is daunting.

Government certainly can't fix everything. But very little can be accomplished without some level of government involvement. Manitoba's political landscape is shifting, and the next two years will likely bring three very close elections, where anything can happen. Let's hope it's something more than teeter-totters.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2014 A1

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