Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Purposely underwhelming speech?

Can be a canny political move, or sign a party is out of ideas

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As has been noted in this space before, throne speeches have, over the years, become increasingly underwhelming events. Although traditionally intended to outline the government's agenda for a new legislative session, today's throne speeches have been reduced to a game of political hide-and-seek.

The government teases the media and political opponents with broad pledges and vague assurances, while at the same time refusing to provide any details on how the government intends to do any of what it has promised.

This is primarily because there is a year's worth of announcements contained in that speech. Why would the government want to blow all that good media coverage in one afternoon?

Still, throne speeches have varying levels of underwhelming.

In the lifespan of any provincial government, which is measured by the four years or so between elections, we have come to expect some throne speeches that are better than others.

The first speech after winning power can be a powerful bit of oratory. There are healthy doses of hope and optimism, with a dash of relief ('thank God we got rid of those idiots') mixed in for good measure. And the last speech before an election can be intriguing as well, albeit in a much different way. That's when we typically get a tiny peek into what a governing party has in store for its re-election strategy. Were there any strategy nuggets contained in Tuesday's throne speech, the last before Premier Greg Selinger and his NDP government attempt to win a fourth straight majority? A few.

Selinger is clearly concerned about how voters will view the burgeoning public debt next year.

There were large tracts of speech dedicated to reminding Manitobans the recession wasn't Manitoba's fault, that we fared better than most provinces and that we all more or less supported the province's decision to spend its way out of the recession. For Selinger's sake, one hopes voters remember all that a year from now when we go to the polls.

On policy, the NDP will clearly stick with what it knows best: health care and education. However, there was also a heavy emphasis on crime and punishment, which is not necessarily an NDP strength. Selinger clearly understands that right now, even as crime rates fall, it's impossible to get elected at any level of government without pandering to the frightened, huddled mass of alarmists that make up the largest portion of citizens who actually vote. Selinger used the throne speech to promise tougher get-tough laws and more prisons. Pandering? Check.

Selinger said the speech, when taken as a whole, does contain some "bold new initiatives" that are proof his government still has the energy to govern. However, bold might be a bit of a stretch. There was some good stuff in the speech. A pledge to create mobile primary care and outpatient surgery units is an ambitious way of helping Manitobans in rural and remote areas get health care in their home communities. It may also reduce costly medical transport to Winnipeg and relieve pressure on waiting lists. But it may fall just short of bold. It really comes down to a matter of perspective.

When a government has been in power for a long time, it tends to spend more time "continuing," "enhancing," "extending," or "renewing" its core policies, rather than reinventing them. After more than a decade in power, the NDP is certainly in that mode.

As a result, ideas the premier may categorize as bold and new may be interpreted by the public, and characterized by the opposition, as a healthy serving of more of the same, with a "new and improved" sticker slapped on the front of the box. And that can be seen as a sign the idea tank has run dry. That image can conjure the winds of change, and that's a meteorological phenomenon no incumbent government wants to face.

The good news for the NDP is twofold. First, Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen will have little to offer voters right now. Following classic election strategy, his Progressive Conservatives will keep all their best material for next October's election. And second, the NDP still has a chance to show voters it has lead in its pencil. More voters will use next spring's provincial budget as the litmus test for the Selinger government's creativity and energy. Until then, it's Selinger's task to continue asserting his government should continue governing, in the face of an onslaught by opposition critics, who will be selling Manitoba voters the exact opposite message.

Underwhelming can be a cunning political strategy, a deliberate decision to avoid doing anything to defeat yourself. Or, it can be a miscalculation that inadvertently creates the impression you've run out the gas. We'll know in 11 months how the voters saw things.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2010 A4

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