BRANDON -- The coming weekend was supposed to be the moment Manitoba's New Democrats would shed the past year's mishaps and chart a course toward re-election. Instead, the party's annual general meeting will be marked by anxiety, finger-pointing and desperate damage control.
The NDP hopes the convention will unify the troops for battle, with the first shot being a series of attack ads designed to weaken growing support for Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives. Instead, much of the attention will be directed toward the Christine Melnick crisis and a series of recent events that have shaken a nervous caucus.
Though Premier Greg Selinger no doubt hoped Tuesday's press conference would put the Melnick matter to rest, it has had the opposite effect. She is now regarded by many people, including a number of New Democrats, as having been punished for telling the truth.
Now that the Riel MLA has been exiled to the opposition benches, she is free -- and motivated -- to expose other embarrassing facts that have piled up over the past 15 years of NDP government.
While the threat posed by Melnick is largely hypothetical, a year's worth of opinion polls, combined with the results of two recent byelections, represent the more pressing problem.
A Probe Research poll in December found the Tories have the support of 48 per cent of voters province-wide compared with just 26 per cent for the NDP, 20 per cent for the Liberals and six per cent for other parties. In Winnipeg, the NDP, at 29 per cent support, trails the PCs at 41 per cent, with the Liberals at 23 and other groups at six.
The numbers were even worse for the NDP in the Jan. 28 byelections, as the party's candidate in the Morris riding received just 12.9 per cent of votes cast. It was even worse in Arthur-Virden, where the NDP candidate finished in third place with just 10.4 per cent of the vote.
On the heels of those drubbings, another Probe poll, released this past weekend in the Brandon Sun, revealed the NDP is far behind the Tories throughout western Manitoba and are on track to lose the Brandon East and Dauphin ridings by hefty margins.
That sends shock waves through the NDP caucus. Dauphin has been held by the NDP since 1981, while Brandon East has been NDP property since the riding was created in 1969. If the NDP is sinking in those long-held ridings, many other NDP MLAs must be wondering, and worrying, how safe their own seats are.
The NDP is hinging its comeback hopes on new messaging linking the PST hike to infrastructure and the attack ads that will be launched next week, but the strategy's success is far from certain.
In response to Tory accusations that the monies derived from the PST increase will be used to feed the government's free-spending habits, Team Selinger claims the money will be used for "hard" infrastructure that will be over and above current infrastructure spending.
The second-quarter financial report released by Manitoba Finance contradicts that assertion, however. It reveals the government has actually reduced infrastructure spending by $300 million this fiscal year, to $1.5 billion from $1.8 billion. Far from backing up Selinger's claims, the government's own data are fresh fuel for the opposition's attacks.
The NDP attack ads will claim Pallister can't be trusted, that he's lying when he promises he won't sell Manitoba Hydro and won't lay off teachers and nurses. The same strategy worked against the Tories in 2011, but they are waiting with a devastating response this time: Greg Selinger lied when he said he wouldn't raise the PST, and now Melnick disputes his version of her file.
The NDP was hoping this weekend would signal a return to the good old days, but the party's problems cannot be fixed by slick spin and cynical advertising. What worked in the past will not work now, because today's NDP has a credibility problem that Gary Doer's NDP never had.
Until Team Selinger comes to grips with that reality, they should not expect their own reality to change.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.