The province's financial books are in rough shape and the inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair has been top of mind, but the state of NHL hockey is also weighing on Greg Selinger as 2012 draws to a close.
In a year-end interview, the Manitoba premier said the world's foremost professional hockey league will need to build some goodwill after a second lengthy work stoppage in less than a decade.
So he's beginning to beat the drum for a hockey extravaganza that would see the Winnipeg Jets suit up for a regular-season contest against the Minnesota Wild -- at the 33,422-seat Investors Group Field.
Selinger said the prospect of an outdoor Winter Classic-style event would generate a lot of excitement for local hockey fans who have been down in the dumps because of the lockout.
"I think it would be a lot of fun," said Selinger, who shares a pair of Jets season tickets with other people.
"I think one of the big things the NHL is going to have to do once they get through this lockout is... rekindle public support for what they're about. And this would be a great way to do it," he said.
The NHL first held an outdoor regular season game in 2003 in Edmonton, featuring the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens. In Canada, such outdoor tilts have been dubbed the Heritage Classic. In the United States, they've been called the Winter Classic. A scheduled Winter Classic match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings in Michigan this winter has already been cancelled due to the lockout.
During a recent business trip to Minnesota, Selinger found U.S. business leaders receptive to the idea of an outdoor match between the Jets and the Wild. "They thought it would be an awesome success," he said.
Selinger hasn't officially broached the idea with the Jets. But Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, has said a Heritage Classic match is worth exploring.
Meanwhile, in two recent interviews, Selinger offered his comments on a wide range of more serious topics, including:
Wrestling with the deficit
Asked if Manitoba was slow off the mark in tackling the deficit, Selinger defended the government's record, saying its hands were tied because of the costly 2011 flood and a greater demand for services in child welfare and justice. "If a child needs to be protected, that has to be done. And if additional children come into the system, they have to be protected," he said.
During difficult or uncertain times, the demand for government services rises, Selinger said. He argued Manitoba's annual spending increases in recent years have been relatively modest compared with those in other provinces.
Phoenix Sinclair inquiry
Selinger was asked for his reaction to the testimony at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.
"The tragedy of Phoenix Sinclair is relived every day for all of as we see the inquiry going forward. It was a very significant tragedy. As we're seeing the testimony unfold, there were a number of pieces that were missing there that might have made a difference in the ability of that child to be living with us today. And that's exactly why we called the inquiry -- so that we can make sure that those kinds of tragedies don't occur again.
"The inquiry, I think, provides very compelling, very moving testimony but underneath all of that there have to be ways to make that system function better and to work with families to help them be able to do what they want to do better, which is raise their children properly."
The government has vowed to implement recommendations stemming from the inquiry. Given the province's fiscal problems, will that pose a problem? Selinger was asked.
"This has been a fundamental theme for us. We will protect the things that matter. Protecting the lives of children and the quality of life for children is one of those things that all Manitobans have told us matters."
At the same time, Selinger said, spending more money is unlikely to be the only solution to improving the system. "Money will be a part of it. But also how business is done and how the... services are provided will be very important as well."
Public financing of political parties
The government has hired political scientist Paul Thomas to devise a new workable system for the public financing of political parties. His report is to come out in 2013.
Public financing of political parties has been a wedge issue in Manitoba politics. The impetus for the partial funding of political parties' operations comes from the NDP's grassroots. The Progressive Conservative party has already served notice it will refuse further taxpayer support beyond the current election campaign spending refunds.
In the interview, Selinger defended the public funding of political parties, calling it a democratic issue.
In the United States, democracy "has really become a club for millionaires and, in some cases, billionaires," he said.
"I think that democracy needs to function in a way that average people have a chance to participate in it... and if that requires modest amounts of public investment to do that, I don't think that's inappropriate," he said.
Hydro dam expansion
Another top-of-mind issue in 2013 will be the government's ambitious timetable for building new northern hydro dams -- and a third bipole transmission line -- in light of weak North American electricity prices brought on by large new supplies of natural gas. A sub-panel of the Public Utilities Board will likely examine the need for Keeyask, the first of the proposed generating stations, in the new year.
Selinger isn't overly concerned that plentiful natural gas will seriously disrupt the province's plans.
"Natural gas is the flavour of the day right now because it is so abundant in North America with the new technology for getting it out of the ground. And it's very cheap. But nobody is forecasting it's going to stay cheap indefinitely or for long periods of time. Otherwise, those long-term contracts would be available in the futures market and they are not. Only short-term contracts are available," he said.
Demand for power is growing within Manitoba's borders and Hydro has solid long-term sales contracts, he noted.
Asked if significant hydro rate increases during the next 20 years are the cross Manitobans will have to bear for new dams that will provide domestic and export customers with reliable and green energy, the premier said: "I don't agree with the premise. If we don't proceed to build increased capacity for ourselves and our own growing economy, we have an even greater risk through reliability issues or lack of supply issues of having higher rates. And we see that in other jurisdictions.
"The jurisdictions that are having the highest rates are ones that have a shortage of good energy, not ones that have an abundance of it. An abundance of good energy is your best guarantee of keeping rates low. And supplying your export customers is the best guarantee of keeping your rates low. This is something that people need to understand."
FP: Can you tell me who is giving the first concert at Investors Group Field next year?
GS.: I don't know. Do you?
FP: Taylor Swift.
GS: Well, that apparently will fill the stadium. (Laughs)
FP: Can you name a Taylor Swift song?
GS: You know what? I cannot.
FP: What was the last book you read?
GS: That's not work-related? (Laughs)... I read a really interesting memoir this summer called Townie: A Memoir by a fairly prominent American author (Andre Dubus III), a story about growing up in Massachusetts ... at a time when a lot of the industries were struggling and going through a lot of change. It's a well-written book.
FP: What was the last movie you went to?
GS: I'm hard-pressed to tell you the last movie I've seen. I'm going to have to give you a blank on that one. I don't tend to see a lot of movies these days. I tend to have a lot of evenings where I'm out doing stuff as part of the job... My drama is daily. I don't really need a movie to have additional drama in my life. (Laughs)
FP: What did you get your wife for Christmas?
GS: I'm not going to tell you because it's not finalized yet (interview was Dec. 20). That's the last gift I always buy because it's the most challenging one to buy. I have a very good idea and I would say this: It's in the area of services.