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Pallister's bad month

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Flooding west of Portage La Prairie ealier this summer

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Flooding west of Portage La Prairie ealier this summer

From Hansard on June 12, on the last day Opposition Leader Brian Pallister and Premier Greg Selinger squared off in the house:

Mr. Brian Pallister (Leader of the Official Opposition): Well, Mr. Speaker, this sitting of the Legislature is-really has flown by, and I want to wish you and all of us in the House and our guests today and pages and everyone here, including members of the media, I guess, the best this summer for a well-deserved break and time with family and friends.

I know that this session, it almost seems, compared to last year, that we haven't done enough, that we haven't been here long enough. But I think, for many of us, we'll welcome the opportunity to reclaim a sense of more balanced life. So I wish everyone the best this summer.

With that in mind, I will ask a question of the Premier that has been crossing the lips of a number of his colleagues and, of course, many in this place, given that this may be the last opportunity to ask this question:

Is he intending to resign prior to the next sitting of the Legislature?

Hon. Greg Selinger (Premier): First of all, I'd like to thank all the pages and all the staff for the service they've provided.

And the member opposite may not think that he's done very much during this session, and I would agree with that, Mr. Speaker.

But, Mr. Speaker, on this side of the House we believe we've made substantial progress for Manitobans: providing good jobs to Manitobans, building roads and flood protection for Manitobans, making sure that Manitobans have apprenticeship opportunities, making sure that our schools are properly funded, expanding daycare opportunities in Manitoba for working families.

Mr. Speaker, those are just some of our accomplishments. I look forward to doing much more every single day as we go forward.

Some Honourable Members: Oh, oh.

Mr. Speaker: Order, please. Order. Order, please.

If you were to pick a moment when things started to go sideways for Brian Pallister, perhaps this is it.

It was the first time Selinger got a good zinger in, and for a brief moment it took the house by surprise that the normally staid premier could be so quick with a one-liner:

"And the member opposite may not think that he's done very much during this session, and I would agree with that, Mr. Speaker."

Just days earlier Pallister was getting headlines for taking the provincial government to court over its raising of the provincial sales tax last year.

We all know by now he lost.

And when you read the decision, he lost big.

Court rulings are by nature, and depending on the case, generally long and tough to slog through for armchair lawyers.

Not this one. Court of Queen's Bench Judge Kenneth Hanssen's was only 15 pages. Short, to the point and an easy read, an indication Hanssen didn't have to hit the law books to write his decision.

What Hanssen also addressed was the 1995 law, inspired by the former PC government of Gary Filmon, and its requirement that a future government go to the people in a referendum to decide a major tax hike.

Hanssen basically said that referendum requirement had no legal merit, or that when held up in front of long-established Canadian law, it had less value than the paper it was printed on.

"I am satisfied that any attempt to transfer legislative power with respect to a money bill away from the Legislative Assembly to the electorate is inconsistent with the express provisions of s. 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 92(2) provides:

- In each province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say,

- Direct Taxation within the Province in order to the raising of a Revenue for Provincial Purposes.

For Pallister and his PCs, who've held up the referendum requirement as sacrosanct, this is not good. Their argument for a referendum is legally invalid, according to Hanssen's decision.

What it means is that is that anytime they bring up referendum and PST in the same sentence, the NDP only have to point to Hanssen's decision, and the PC's handed it to them on a platter.

Perhaps an unintended consequence, but Pallister only has himself to blame.

Now comes the summer flood.

As colleague Dan Lett writes, for all intents and purposes, Pallister was Mr. Invisible during the flood.

Also not good for the PCs.

His decision to be somewhere else means anything critical he says on the flood file in the coming months can be easily shot down by the NDP:

"Whatever Brian, where were you?" they will chirp in unison.

But there's more.

The government, as it always does, offers private briefings to Opposition MLAs on the flood situation if their constituency is getting hit by flooding.

A few PCs MLAs and staffers participated in at least one of the four the government says it offered this summer.  There was also a phone number made available for each of them to participate on a conference call. Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton's office says Pallister did not call in for any and did not attend any in person.

Again, not good. It's just more ammo for the NDP. And again, Pallister only has himself to blame.

Here's a sample of what's ahead for him:

"I know from talking to the premier how much he's been out talking to people and how much that affects his view of what we need to do for the flood," Finance Minister Jennifer Howard says.

"I don't think you can replace going out and talking to people who are directly affected and who are worried about their houses or worried about their businesses or worried about their farms. I know when the premier goes out and does that, it has an effect on the decisions we make."

There's a bigger reason why Pallister should've been out sandbagging, alongside some of his caucus members and the military.

Certainly, it has to do with being seen, and showing support, compassion and even leadership. (Watch a video clip of former PC Leader Hugh McFadyen in 2009 after Breezy Point on the Red River was wiped off the map because of ice jams). 

It also has to do with the future of the province, Howard says.

She says this summer's flooding is expected to damage the province's overall economy for months to come, not only in the cost to fight it and in compensation, but to agriculture, tourism, businesses in the flood zone and to those who had to take time off work to protect their properties.

"That all drags on the economy and growth already looks like it's going to slow in the country for this year and this flood in Manitoba I think will have an impact on our own growth," Howard said.

Selinger has already said the bill for this summer's flooding on the Assiniboine River is at least $200 million and counting.

Then there's the estimated $300-million cost of improving flood protection, particularly on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. The government says it wants to build both as soon as possible.

"I think for any politician, going out to talk to Manitobans, especially when they're experiencing a crisis, you can't replace that with a briefing note or a summary," Howard says. " The role of a politician is to go out and listen to what people have to tell you, especially when things are rough for them. It's not always easy, but it affects the way you do the job."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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