The spring sitting of the legislature (MLAs are scheduled to rise Thursday) couldn't have been more different than last year's.
This year, the microphones in the legislative building will fall silent for the summer with little fanfare as our provincial politicians begin their summer break of making smiley faces and shaking hands at community festivals and country fairs.
Last year, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives cancelled summer in protest over the Selinger government's boosting of the PST by one point to eight per cent. PC Leader Brian Pallister and his Tories took advantage of little-used procedural tactics to keep the house sitting until Sept. 13. The 86-day sitting was one of the longest in the province's history.
The Tories have no stomach to delay things this spring. They want to get out of the legislature as much as the NDPers, although for different reasons.
The Tories leave feeling pretty good about themselves. They sit high in the polls, and their leader has more name recognition than some who came before him.
That's come at the expense of Premier Greg Selinger and his MLAs. It's common that an incumbent government -- the NDP has been in office since 1999 -- dips in public opinion in midterm, but the NDP has taken more than a dip. Nosedive, tailspin, crash, belly flop -- all fit to describe the party's current position, although insiders say their polls show they've seen a bump in approval since they started talking earlier this year about how they'll spend revenue from the PST increase on fixing roads, highways and bridges throughout the province.
Which brings me to the three main themes of the spring sitting:
1. Pallister: Can he sustain and build on his polling numbers? More so, do Manitobans really see him as premier?
Right now all we see is a man angry at last year's increase to the PST and the other perceived sins of the NDP. (Deficit, debt, spending -- take your pick). The next election is scheduled for April 2016, depending on when Ottawa calls the next federal election, and one would hope Pallister has some new arrows in the quiver when the legislature resumes sitting in the fall. If he's still fuming over the PST increase two years from now, he runs the risk of folks just tuning out, if they haven't already. The wannabe premier also has to do a better job of selling himself and his party to more Manitobans if they want to win any more seats. Positive poll results midterm don't mean more seats election night, and the Tories need a lot. (Current seat count: NDP: 35, PC: 19, LIB: 1, IND: 1, Vacant: 1).
As things stand, he's let the NDP define him through its attack ads. Pallister has tried to chip away at the ads' inaccuracies, but in doing so inadvertently reminds us what the ads say in the first place. Each day before the next election is crucial for Pallister. He must pick his battles carefully, including within his own caucus. Pallister, 59, has to show us he has the diplomatic skills, vision and modesty to work with anyone to run the province.
Seeing this word in a government new release makes one's eyes glaze over. "Again? The NDP is talking about infrastructure again?" It seems as though Selinger and his ministers have found 5.5 billion ways to talk about infrastructure since the sitting began March 6. "Jobs" came a close second. The NDP says it will spend $5.5 billion (including federal contributions) over five years on streets, highways and flood protection and anything else that needs sprucing up to keep the province running smoothly. Expect to hear the word infrastructure another 5.5 billion times in the months to come.
3. Selinger: He says he's running again in the next election, but still you wonder. He and his government took a couple of needless knocks over the past few months, and you ask yourself if he's still got it in him to absorb those blows, including some from his own team:
-- There was the Assiniboia Downs fiasco and the pointless dance of axing VLT revenue to the Manitoba Jockey Club by $5 million per year, and then reinstating it but calling it something else.
-- There was NDP MLA Christine Melnick, who got into a public spat with Selinger over something to do with something -- it was so long ago I can't remember. Oh yeah, her use of a civil servant and his email contact list for an April 2012 political debate at the legislature over Ottawa taking more control of immigration to the province, and then lying about it. Anyway, Selinger took the rare step of banishing Melnick from the NDP benches. She's sat as an "Independent" since and hasn't raised a peep.
-- Then there are the health woes that have dogged the province as of late. Two stand out: patients driven home from hospital by cab and dying on the doorstep -- there have been three -- and the temporary suspension of the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter air ambulance service. For a government that prides itself on its record on health care, it looked weak in responding and dealing with both issues. Health Minister Erin Selby, appointed to the portfolio eight months ago, also appeared at times out of her depth. Selby has since picked up her game considerably, but in the beginning she did not have enough support.
To hang the suspension of STARS around her neck is unfair. Inking a 10-year deal with STARS was Selinger's decision, and one made back in the October 2011 election campaign when the province's emergency medical system was totally unprepared to move from ground to air.
Selinger and his predecessor Gary Doer have also made a point of telling the media that for a political party to stay vital it must continually renew itself, not just with ideas but with people. Selinger is part of the original NDP crew swept to power in 1999. He'll be 65 by the time the next election rolls along.