Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger's future hangs on slaying the deficit

But can he get it done with his other commitments?

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Is Premier Greg Selinger running out of time?

For the past several years, Selinger has been telling Manitobans not to worry about the budget deficit and to concentrate, instead, on ensuring the province comes out of the current economic malaise in better shape than when it went in.

To do that, Selinger believes, we must reject quick-fix austerity measures in favour of a measured program of moderated spending, civil service attrition and continued government investment in the things we value most: health care, education, public safety and infrastructure.

That was certainly the message in Tuesday's throne speech: Slow and steady wins the race. Don't do anything rash now that will undercut core services later. Don't lose faith in the capacity of Manitoba's economy to slowly but surely overcome the deficit.

In many ways, Selinger is espousing a reasonable, mature approach to governing. Austerity on its own is an imperfect solution for a struggling economy and government treasury. Cut spending too quickly, or too deeply, and government is only hurting itself. Rampant austerity weakens economies, erodes revenues and, ultimately, undermines core public services.

However, despite the logic of his argument, there are signs the voting public is not buying what Selinger is selling.

The NDP is suffering badly in public opinion polls. It seems the more Selinger tells Manitobans not to worry about the deficit, the more they worry about just that.

Now, Selinger's whole political future rides not on how much the economy grows or how many bridges are repaired or how strong core services remain. His future now rests solely on his ability to eliminate the deficit.

Selinger is no doubt aware of the dilemma, but has not sold out to an expedited deficit-reduction strategy, as has been the case in other provinces. In an interview prior to the tabling of the throne speech, Selinger said pressure from the media and opposition to deal first with the deficit will not deter him from holding firm on a path he feels is best for Manitoba.

"They go together," Selinger said. "It's not an either-or situation. You have to manage your core expenditures to reduce your deficit year over year. At the same time, you have to grow the economy and skill up people to work in that economy."

The big question is whether Selinger's government has enough time left to eliminate the deficit before Manitobans go to the polls. Selinger has promised a balanced budget for the spring of 2016, which also happens to be just a few weeks before the likely date of the next provincial election.

That critical convergence of budget and election cycles is still more than two years away, something that provides some comfort to the NDP as it sinks ever lower in opinion polls. And yet, when you think about what the next two years hold for the current government, it may not be very much time at all.

Before Selinger can herald a balanced budget, he will have to bring in two more deficit budgets. That will mean increased public debt and hand-wringing from political opponents.

As it stands now, the Progressive Conservatives have proven adept at leaping on any bad economic news as proof Selinger can no longer manage either the government or the economy. Whether it is a hiccup in the unemployment rate or some soft retail sales figures, PC Leader Brian Pallister is there with a wagging finger and a disapproving expression.

There aren't many days when the experience of being in opposition triumphs over being in government. However, this is one of them. Pallister can harp all he wants about how bad the NDP is at governing with the comfort of knowing he does not have to come up with any plan to do better. It's only necessary he repeat his party's main message -- NDP government bad -- using whatever scrap of information he can find.

Government, on the other hand, can only shake its collective head in frustration about how difficult it is to get anyone to celebrate its accomplishments. The NDP is now on an ambitious plan to invest billions of dollars in core infrastructure, some of it funded by a controversial decision to raise the PST by one additional point.

The throne speech listed some of the work that will be funded by the additional infrastructure dollars. Many will celebrate some projects, such as flood-proofing of Highway 75 and major improvements to the Perimeter Highway. And yet, Selinger may not find he gets much of a political windfall from these accomplishments until -- wait for it -- the deficit has disappeared.

Selinger is obviously determined to stay his course, rejecting all suggestions he's headed for a head-on collision sometime in the spring of 2016. An event from which it is likely he may not be able to fully recover.

That's the problem with head-on collisions. You never see them coming until the sudden stop. And then it's too late to do anything about it.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2013 A4

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