Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wounds to credibility self-inflicted

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BRANDON -- The danger inherent in any political strategy is that it might look good on paper, but it is easy to go too far in its execution -- and political novices often don't realize they have gone too far until they are there.

A good example of the hazard of a poorly conceived and executed strategy is a statement made by rookie Health Minister Erin Selby last week.

During a meeting of a committee of MLAs studying the Health Department's spending estimates, Progressive Conservative health critic Myrna Driedger asked Selby a series of questions regarding the untendered contract the Selinger government entered into with STARS for the provision of emergency medical transportation via helicopter.

The contract was the subject of the recent auditor general's report, which revealed the province is paying up to six times as much as other provinces for the same service and that the contract could cost Manitobans up to $160 million over its 10-year term.

As Driedger's questions became more pointed, Selby's answers became increasingly defensive and began to parrot the accusations found in the NDP's recent attack ads targeting Tory leader Brian Pallister.

Selby repeated the usual lines about the Filmon government "firing 1,000 nurses," "cutting $37 million from rural hospitals" and giving an untendered contract to a health-management expert.

It was the standard NDP script until Driedger asked, "How old is the STARS helicopter that we are using right now?"

Rather than replying that the helicopter was manufactured in 1991 and refurbished last year, Selby unleashed a 561-word rant that included the following accusation:

"We know how things were done when they were in office, Mr. Chair. They ignored problems. They swept them under the rug. And it is hard for me to imagine, but they allowed 12 babies to die and still didn't take into consideration what happened to learn from such devastation that those families went through."

That was the moment when the NDP's strategy of tying today's Tories to the actions of the Filmon government in the 1990s went too far, and the consequences for Selby and her government could be severe.

It is a fundamental rule of partisan politics that every attack must have some factual foundation and that the need for factual accuracy increases with the gravity of the attack. Selby's accusation that the Filmon government "allowed 12 babies to die" violates that rule because her accusation is completely false.

After a three-year inquest into the 12 pediatric cardiac surgery deaths that occurred at the Health Sciences Centre in 1994, Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair issued a report of more than 500 pages in length. His report includes many factual findings allocating responsibility for those deaths, but there is no finding that even indirectly blames the Filmon government.

In addition to getting her facts wrong, Selby neglected to mention that problems with the pediatric cardiac surgery program re-emerged in late 2001 and that the Doer government was accused of keeping those problems secret.

Unfounded accusations inevitably harm the credibility of the accuser. That is certainly the case for Selby in this instance, and also for the NDP. By taking the attacks on the Filmon Tories to such an extreme, far beyond any shred of factual accuracy, Selby has impaired both the trustworthiness and effectiveness of the NDP's other attacks against Pallister.

For a government already suffering from a serious credibility deficiency, that's a problem.

Far worse for the NDP is Selby's assertion that the provincial government is liable for the deaths of children in certain circumstances. By making that claim, she has implicitly admitted her own government's culpability for the deaths of children over the past 14 years, including Phoenix Sinclair, Gage Guimond and Venecia Audy -- something the NDP has desperately tried to avoid.

Selby's unfounded accusation might have seemed like a powerful response at the time, but she went too far. In doing so, she has devalued the NDP's attack ads against Pallister and exposed the government to a dangerous line of attack from the Opposition.

Worse still, she has revealed herself as willing to exploit the tragic deaths of 12 children to her political advantage.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2014 A9

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About Deveryn Ross

Deveryn Ross joined the Free Press as a political columnist in 2011. His columns also appear in the Westman Journal and other community newspapers throughout Western Canada. He has also served as a columnist for the Brandon Sun, Brandon Today and several rural Manitoba newspapers.

Born and raised in Brandon, where he still resides, Deveryn has been active in politics at all levels for more than four decades. He has worked in various roles on dozens of election campaigns in several provinces and has provided strategic advice to elected officials and candidates from all major parties.

Deveryn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Dalhousie University and Bachelor of Arts from Brandon University, where he was awarded the medal in political science.


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