Under the Dome

with Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

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  • Pallister's bad month

    07/22/2014 1:20 AM

    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."



  • Crying wolf

    07/15/2014 5:31 PM

    Not that long ago I had conversation with a gentleman who lives on Lake Manitoba. 

    I met him during the height of the 2011 flood along with a lot of other folks who lost their homes and cottages to the flooded lake's pounding waves. We've stayed in contact since.

    He said something that's stuck with me over the course of the past month when flooding on the Assiniboine River got more serious. His fear was history might repeat itself.

    "We've got to be careful how we approach this," he said, explaining the adverse impact on Lake Manitoba by the use of the Portage Diversion. "We can't be seen to be crying wolf."

    Well, with all respect, folks in and around Lake Manitoba are "crying wolf" and with each passing day they become less credible. Judging by the some of the comments I've read and heard, I would even go so far to say some are also being racist in their hyperbolic fervor that the province drain their lake at the expense of First Nations people living downstream at Fairford and Lake St. Martin. They conveniently forget the people who were displaced and the communities that have become ghost towns in the aftermath of 2011.

    They all blame Premier Greg Selinger and his government for their woes this summer. They essentially say the government shouldn't be using the Portage Diversion this year, like it did in 2011, and flood their lake again.

    They blame the NDP for being too slow to act in building a bigger drain for Lake Manitoba. They say the NDP had a whole three years. Where's the drain? Why are you sacrificing us again? Why don't you care?

    They would blame Selinger for the rain, too, if they could, but that would be stretching things too far.

    Lake Winnipeg is flooding, too, in part because of the high, rain-fed water flowing into it from The Lake of the Woods on the Winnipeg River.

    Certainly, those farmers who've been flooded artificially because of the Portage Diversion must be fairly compensated and quickly.

    On Tuesday, the diversion was sending 31,450 cubic feet per second of water into Lake Manitoba. That amount is to rise to 35,000 cfs in the next two to three days and then is to drop significantly.

    In comparing spring 2011 and this summer, the province says the diversion funneled more water into the lake over a longer period of time in 2011, almost three months in which the diversion's inflow was about 30,000 cfs. This summer, it will be less than a month's duration. Translation? It's not 2011 again. Not even close.

    It also bears repeating that anyone who rebuilt on Lake Manitoba after the 2011 flood had to build at an elevation of 822 feet above sea level so they would be protected in the event of future flooding. Lake Manitoba reached its highest level during the 2011 flood when it peaked at 817.1 ft. asl.

    Some complained only two years ago that 822 feet was too high and that the government was being unreasonable.

    Then there's the convenient re-writing or forgetting of history-that the NDP somehow is responsible for the creation of all the flood protection works that go from the Shellmouth Dam near Russell to the Red River Floodway gates just outside Winnipeg.

    All these flood protection works are actually the result of the 1950 flood, and were first recommended under the Liberal government of Douglas Campbell in the mid-50s and built by Conservative Premier Duff Roblin after he became premier in 1958.

    In 1958, Selinger was seven years old.

    What he's stuck with today day is the legacy of those decisions. What's he's stuck with is trying to figure how to reasonably use all these flood control works at time when we're experiencing more frequent flood events on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. And way, way more rain.

    The recommendation to build a new outlet for Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin only became public April 8, 2013 after the independent Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin Regulation Review Committee submitted its report. The committee was appointed by the government one year earlier.

    In its report, the committee said it recognized that control of Lake St. Martin levels must be attained before additional capacity is added to the outlet of Lake Manitoba.

    "The Committee recognizes that any new works affecting Lake St. Martin will require substantive discussion with the First Nations bordering Lake St. Martin and the Dauphin River," it said in its report.

    That consultation process is in its infancy and the wider public consultation process is to start this fall. Things were to have started last month, but were postponed until the summer flood threat passed.

    The province has already said it's examining six options to improve the outlet for Lake Manitoba, and is doing so weighing the type of work involved, like how much rock should be blasted through to the area's topography and the total cost of the project.

    It's also planning how it can drain Lake St. Martin without impacting the residents downstream of any new channel and their livelihoods.

    For anyone to suggest Selinger and his NDP could have by now already dug the two new channels defies common sense.

    Worse, it undermines your credibility to the point few listen.



  • Politics in the flood zone

    07/10/2014 8:08 AM

    Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    It's a lesson for any politician who wants to stick their neck out and be seen in the flood zone.

    There's a good way to do it and a bad way to do it.

    Flood Fight

    First the good.

    Morris Progressive Conservative MLA Shannon Martin has spent the better part of July sandbagging in and around St. François Xavier, which is part of the constituency he represents.

    Martin has posted quite a bit on Twitter and Facebook on sandbagging efforts, not showcasing himself or making any snide partisan remarks, but thanking people, including the military, for their hard work. 

    Martin also posted a photo on Twitter of him and mayoralty candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who was also sandbagging at the same time at the same place. 

    For those who've been living on the moon for the past 30 years, Judy is as NDP as it comes.

    Shannon and Judy standing together, arms around one another, gave some folks a jolt that two people, complete opposites on the political spectrum, could actually work together. And smile about it.

    It didn't take long after Martin posted the pic for the comments to come:




    The lesson? Martin and Wasylycia-Leis show us how it's supposed to done in tough times. It rises above the crass partisanship that other politicians wallow in without thought.

    Which brings me to federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

    He flew into Winnipeg to whine that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wouldn't let him talk to the high-ranking troops in the flood zone. Why he couldn't just get in a car and go to St. François Xavier, he didn't explain other to say he wanted a briefing on the flood situation from those at the top.

    Mulcair spoke at The Forks, which is nowhere near the flood zone let alone a sandbag.

    Certainly, Muclair's brief appearance portrayed Harper as an evil manipulator that plays well with those who believe Harper is an evil manipulator. It accomplished nothing more.

    And to the rest of us it only showed Mulcair is no Shannon Martin or Judy Wasylycia-Leis.






  • Rate shock

    07/3/2014 2:01 PM

    On Wednesday the Public Utilities released its report on Manitoba Hydro's plan to build the Keeyask and Conawapa dams and a new transmission line to Minnesota.

    The PUB green-lighted the Keeyask dam, but not Conawapa. It also approved the transmission line.

    The estimated cost of Keeyask is $6.5 billion, but that's an old number. The PUB says a more realistic possibility is that Keeyask's capital cost could balloon to $7.2 billion. 

    Among many things, the PUB said the Selinger government has to do more to protect Manitobans from projected rate increases to pay for Keeyask and the transmission line, not to mention the already-approved Bipole III transmission line to run from northern Manitoba to Winnipeg. The estimated cost for Bipole III is $3.28 billion, but that's also an old number.

    On top of that, Hydro is also in the process of replacing its older infrastruture, including thousands of wooden poles first installed in 1940 during rural electrification. Hydro has estimated that the aggregate replacement value of its critical assets alone (poles, cables, manholes, conductors, transformers) in today's dollars is approximately $7.9 billion. That's also an old number.

    The PUB says with everything Hydro has on its plate, an average electricity bill in 2013 could double by 2032. 

    Here's what the PUB said about those costs and the hit on ratepayers. It's lifted directly from page 252 of the PUB's report.

    Hydro has signalled potential annual rate increases of about four per cent over the next 20 years, but any rate increase first has to be approved by the PUB. The PUB recently awared Hydro only a 2.7 per cent increase for this year.

    Rates and Ratepayer Impacts

    Manitoba Hydro will have to invest in replacing aging infrastructure and in building Bipole III. This will result in increasing electricity rates over the coming decade. The construction of new generation and associated transmission facilities will add to and prolong these rate increases.

    Furthermore, construction costs will most likely grow and revenue projections may not be achieved. This gap between rising costs and unrealized revenues will be borne by ratepayers.

    Given the length of time projected for these rate increases and their magnitude, especially in the early years, the panel is concerned about intergenerational fairness and the impact on vulnerable residents and communities. Lower income consumers, particularly those in northern and aboriginal communities where energy choices are
    limited or non-existent, will especially feel this impact.

    The Government of Manitoba will receive significant revenues from incremental capital taxes and water rental fees from the development of the Keeyask project. It would be reasonable for the Government of Manitoba to use some or all of the incremental revenue it will realize from the Keeyask project to mitigate adverse rate impacts on
    vulnerable consumers. Furthermore, Manitoba Hydro should take internal actions to moderate rate increases.

    1) The panel recommends that the Government of Manitoba direct a portion of the incremental capital taxes and water rental fees from the development of the Keeyask Project to be used to mitigate the impact of rate increases on
    lower income consumers, northern and aboriginal communities.

    2) The panel recommends that Manitoba Hydro relax its 75/25 debt-to-equity ratio policy to moderate its proposed electricity rate increases.

    3) The panel recommends that Manitoba Hydro implement cost containment measures to moderate its proposed electricity rate increases.

    What are those "incremental capital taxes and water rental fees" worth to the government? Here's the PUB again:

    Manitoba Hydro in the course of its operations pays to the Government of Manitoba fees and taxes, which currently total $262 million annually representing 16 per cent of Manitoba Hydro's revenues. Payments to the province are forecast to double to $516 million by 2032.

    These charges include water rental fees, payroll and capital taxes, a provincial debt guarantee fee of one per cent on Manitoba Hydro's outstanding debt as well as a sinking fund administration fee. Manitoba Hydro also makes Municipal Grants in Lieu of Taxes, which total $22 million and are forecast to grow to $35 million by 2032.

    Hydro Minister Stan Struthers has said the province was accepted all of the PUB's recommedations, but on the three above, the government appears less than enthusiastic.

    "The Manitoba government will also consider the panel's specific recommendation respecting government revenues from new hyro development, as well as potential alternatives to support vulnerable consumers to reduce their bills," Struthers said in a July 2 memo to Hydro board chairman Bill Fraser and Hydro CEO Scott Thomson, which was obtained by the Free Press.

    Struthers did not specifly what that those "alternatives" might be, other than yet-to-be developed enhanced energy efficiency programs for low-income families, aboriginal and northern communities and those customers currently excluded from program eligibility because of overdrawn accounts.





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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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