Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The water's pain is Selinger's gain

NDP shouldn't Hoop and Holler yet

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My son was perplexed. "How can they flood all those homes?" he asked late Saturday morning as we watched on television the images of muddy water seeping out of the hole cut deliberately in a dike holding back the swollen Assiniboine River. "That is just wrong."

I quickly explained to him the two choices facing Premier Greg Selinger when he made the decision: cut the dike and flood 150 homes or wait for the dike to give way on its own in one or more spots and flood 850 or more homes. So, given those facts, what would my son do? He nodded his head. "I don't know. That's a tough one."

Not quite 11 years old, my son was able to grasp Selinger's dilemma and the fact that there was no easy answer. And that raises an interesting question: How will history remember the deliberate dike breach of 2011? More importantly, will voters remember it this fall when they go to the polls to elect a new provincial government?

The answers to those questions have a lot to do with exactly how well the controlled breach of the dike works in sacrificing the few to save the many. And how well the province compensates those few who were asked to sacrifice their homes and property for the greater good. Right now, improving weather seems to have made the decision to breach the dike the correct one. And that's giving Selinger every opportunity to turn this event into political capital to be spent later in the year.

At this stage, it is simply too early to say for sure how all this is going to work out. The water being released from the controlled breach is moving at a glacial pace south through mostly farmland. It will be days before the true extent of the damage from this strategy is fully known. In fact, the only thing we know for certain at this stage is that Selinger is not afraid to make a tough decision.

Cutting a hole in a dike holding back the surging Assiniboine River is the epitome of the risk-reward equation. And if things go well -- and by well I mean fewer homes flooded than predicted -- this could be a turning point for a premier who has had a lot of trouble connecting with the electorate. He will be seen as a politician who can lead through a crisis, and that's a powerful quality to add to a political resumé just six months before the next provincial election.

It was a deliberate decision by the NDP to showcase Selinger as the face of the province's flood-fighting efforts. Though that job had fallen to various ministers of the Crown in the past, this time around Selinger has been out front at all public flood-fighting events. No doubt part of that has to do with Selinger's need to boost his profile in the face of worsening opinion-poll numbers. It is also worth noting that Selinger's increased presence in the public aspects of flood-fighting has taken limelight time away from Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton, the runner-up in the 2009 leadership race and a politician who has become a stubborn, even mischievous dissident in Selinger's government. In politics, payback is a bitch.

All that said, it would be quite an accomplishment for Selinger to turn the deliberate flooding of 150 homes into a political gain. But there are some factors working in his favour.

Flood politics is, in general, as difficult to predict as flood waters are to contain. Flood politics play much differently in rural areas than in urban areas. In the former, it is generally accepted that the province has never done enough to mitigate the chronic flooding that takes place every spring; in urban centres, residents living behind permanent dikes and diversions are so safe it makes them profoundly unsympathetic to the plight of those who live outside those security measures. So even while the suffering may be great in rural areas, the blowback in urban centres, where there are more seats and voters, is usually underwhelming.

That explains why Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen, the man who desperately wants to take Selinger's job, has been so quiet about the premier's decision to deliberately breach the dike. McFadyen would never miss an opportunity to pin failure on Selinger, but this is an issue that has little traction for the opposition. The fact is that for many decades, the pleas of rural municipalities and citizens for better flood mitigation and water management have been largely ignored. Not just by the current government, but by governments of all stripes going back many years. McFadyen simply won't open that avenue of debate.

For now, the river is going down, the breach waters are more or less under control, the opposition is biding its time and the premier is getting some much-needed attention. It may not get his government re-elected in the fall, but right now it appears that it has helped his chances.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2011 A7

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