Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice

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  • The spy who came in for the cookie

    Political Courtesy Rule #23: If you're gonna peep on a rival party's press conference, keep your hands off the baked goods. Especially if you're stealing from the provincial Liberals, who have no money and whose policy ideas everyone already steals, anyway.
  • Politics and the English Language

    Despite their relentless, rah-rah public relations machines, governments do a laughably bad job of telling people about all the nice things they do.To wit: The press release. The daily missives are laboured over, tweaked and fussed with endlessly by a dozen government staffers. Soooo much effort for so little clarity.Health press releases are particularly brutal, I find. Earlier this week, I spent the better part of a morning at a press conference at HSC trying to figure out how much money Ottawa is spending on what the heck kind of aboriginal health research. I wandered from government official to doctor to PR person asking for some plain-language clarification. I listened to the 45 minutes of speeches. I read the pile of press releases several times. I tried to decipher all the acronyms and jargon and vague words. I still don't really get it.And today the province put out a press release touting a plan to help new local video game companies get more business. How could a bunch of techno-hipsters - basically the city's coolest people - be boring and pedantic and impenetrable? Here's how:"...market research and development of an alternative reality game prototype and six-episode Internet protocol television (IPTV) series." "An incubator is a facility designed to encourage entrepreneurship and minimize obstacles to new business formation and development, particularly for high-technology firms, by housing a number of budding enterprises that share an array of services such as rent and business counselling." The last word goes to George Orwell, writing more than 60 years ago:"Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs. "
  • Moving forward since 2003

    Steve Lambert, who covers the legislature for the Canadian Press, sent in the following, in response to the previous blog. It's a clip from his wire story that ran Dec. 11, 2003. That's more than five years ago.WINNIPEG (CP)    Manitobans will be encouraged to cut back on the amount of water they use under a conservation plan being developed by the provincial government, Premier Gary Doer said Thursday.    Legislation should be ready by the spring, he told the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in his annual state-of-the province address.    "It might mean not watering your lawn as much or not putting as many chemicals on your lawn," Doer said.    "We cannot squander this wonderful, precious asset that we have."                                           Five years ago, that was the Water Protection Act Doer was talking about more than five years ago. The act passed, but five years later there are still no regulations that actually put any of the legislation into practice five years later.Thanks, Steve. I'll check on it in 2013.
  • Moving Forward at 0.0000023 km/h

    Everyone was abuzz yesterday about the province's move to boost the speed limit to 110 km/h on parts of the Trans-Can and Highway 75 to Emerson. I'm new here, so I checked our archives to read a little background. Turns out, the province has been mulling the speed change since at least May, 2006. That's a whole lotta mulling, nearly two years worth, all to change a couple of signs on two highways.I'm glad engineers spent time making sure Manitoba's roads are safe, and I respect the fact that the government has to consult with truckers and environmental groups and the like. But two years?
  • The Chomiak Stance

    This is a little stale, but I got a laugh out of a story we ran Saturday about Justice Minister Dave Chomiak.He stood on the steps of the Legislature and weathered all kinds of jeers from corrections officers protesting the fact that they have been without a contract for eons. It's pretty clear the province is stalling the negotiations - as they often do - so the officers are right to be cheesed off. But you gotta admit Chomiak's got guts to stand there and let 200 burly prison guards call him names.With the story, we ran a photo of Chomiak in the classic pose he adopts so often in the house - head down, shoulders hunched, eyes closed, waiting with deep forbearance for the heckling to stop. It's pure theatrics and it's very effective. I don't know if it worked on the corrections officers - they might be tougher to impress than your average MLA. But in the house Chomiak doesn't start speaking again until the hecklers are totally silent which happens remarkably fast. Works every time.
  • Putting the high in highways

    The Tories asked FIVE questions about FIVE different highways in Question Period Wednesday. Plus one about a traffic light in the RM of Rosser.

  • Moving Forward with a greenhouse

    Tuesday's throne speech was just bursting with bold initiatives. Man, the radical things that are about to happen will blow your mind. Here's a couple of my favourites."This year, Workplaces in Motion will be introduced to encourage Manitobans to incorporate physical activity into their workdays.""In the coming months, your government will add a crown attorney in the Brandon region.""...The Northern Healthy Foods Initiative...will be complemented by the development of a commercial greenhouse at Grand Rapids."
  • Robust

    It's a bad sign when a journalist wants to ban a word, but that's what I want to do with "robust."It's the new favourite word at the Manitoba Legislature, and it's everywhere. Politians throw it around like yesterday's "multi-pronged integrated community partnership."Latest offender: Justice Minister Dave Chomiak, otherwise a very literate guy. The country's justice ministers are meeting this week in Winnipeg and they've got a "robust" agenda, according to his press release.I don't really know what a robust agenda is, but I'm pretty sure the justice ministers don't have one. It's gonna be another meeting of ministers where they all kvetch about how the young offenders' act needs reforming and Ottawa needs to do more to battle organised crime. Not much of substance will actually be accomplished, kind of like the environment ministers meeting here a few months ago. They'll put out a communique later in the week full of platitudes and motherhood statements, demanding Ottawa take action. Ottawa will say, don't worry, we're about to take action. Reporters will dutifully write the story.I'm going to work on a "robust" reason not to bother.
  • There musta been a memo

    I bet some smart PC staffer nipped out over lunch to buy 19 poppies because every single Tory MLA was sporting one Monday in the house.Across the aisle, none of the NDP MLAs donned the Remembrance Day symbol, even Premier Gary Doer.(To be fair, none of the reporters in the press gallery had scrounged up a poppy either. We have enough trouble with the mandatory tie rule.)
  • Spirited smart alecs

    The Tories got cheeky with their response to the Spirited Energy audit Wednesday, handing out a press release covered in black censor marks. It was a witty swipe at the NDP, which grudgingly released a stack of Spirited Energy invoices in July after months of demands by Tories and reporters, and a slapdown by the ombudsman. Problem was, the invoices were dotted with black marks where government censors obscured ridiculous details like the number of cookies served at a lunch meeting or the cost of photocopies. The words the Tories left uncensored on their press release Wednesday read: Spirited waste and NDP mismanagement pointing to spiritless premier.”
  • Teachers are smart

    A group of Manitoba teachers spent the last couple of days at a conference at the legislature, studying the province's politics. This morning, at a little breakfast panel, they asked a few of us reporters how to get students more psyched up about government, especially when it still seems to be dominated by a bunch of old guys.That was some astute foreshadowing on the part of those teachers.A few hours after the panel, I got a press release from Mayor Sam Katz about a new initiative in his bid to "build a city of opportunity."He's creating a Seniors Advisory Council. 
  • My pen! My pen!

    (That's a Kids In the Hall reference, by the way)Everyone in the Legislature press gallery went on an online Spirited Energy shopping spree yesterday. That was after Tory MLA Leanne Rowat needled the NDP during Question Period about how exorbitant the shipping fees are if you buy any Spirited Energy swag on the province's website.The charges really are out of whack. A colleague tried to buy an umbrella with the swirly new brand emblazoned on it. Like anyone would buy that, but whatever. A $14.95 umbrella costs more than $25 with all the delivery fees and taxes.I bought a $3 pen and the shipping was about $8. Total: $11.82. For a pen that everyone around here says runs out of ink after a few uses.Basically, everything you order costs $8 to ship, whether it's 100 T-shirts or one little pen.I hope my pen arrives in time for next week's release of the auditor's report into the Spirited Energy rebanding campaign. Gotta take good notes. 
  • The Battle of the Bobbies

    Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen has had some good (if somewhat rehearsed) lines lately in Question Period. He's been haranguing the NDP every day about the muddle that is the east side and the decision to run the new Manitoba Hydro power line down the west side. He calls it Doer's "daffy detour" because it's going to cost millions more and leak valuable power. He also ribbed Doer for his "shifting buffet of reasons" why the power line can't run down the east side. Not bad.Yesterday was even more fun, though. McFadyen invoked the Bobbies - environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Manitoba Hydro boss Bob Brennan.McFadyen brandished duelling letters from them both - written to the Free Press three years ago when the controversy over the power line started to germinate. The letters were mostly about northern dams, so they weren't quite on point, but it was still a bit of QP theatre that really did seem to irk the premier.Kennedy said dams and transmission lines damage the boreal forest. In a pointed reply, Brennan said that's an "irresponsible exageration."Thundered McFadyen: “Will the premier say that the real reason [for the detour] is that he’s afraid of having a fight with Bobbie Kennedy?...Whose side is he on? Bobbie Brennan’s or Bobbie Kennedy’s?”Hmm, looks like Doer is on Kennedy's side. It appears that Doer is worried about Kennedy's clout and the ability of his group and other environmental activists to tie up the construction of the east side power line in years of court challenges and regulatory wrangling. One Doer spinner noted in an e-mail that Kennedy has a $70 million budget to do just that. So, in the Battle of the Bobbies, it looks like the win goes to Kennedy. 
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy

    Conservation Minister Stan Struthers is about the last guy you could ever imagine in a sweatlodge, taking part in a traditional aboriginal pipe ceremony and getting all spiritual with Canada's First Peoples. Especially some First Peoples who have set up a blockade on his highway and refused to return his calls for the last month.Struthers is a nerdy white guy from Dauphin. Totally decent and hard-working, by all accounts. But, like, he's a member of the Rotary Club.Turns out, he's more first-hand familiar than most Manitobans with traditional aboriginal ceremonies. He taught in Norway House and then later took students to Peguis to participate in a sweat to get up close and personal with some native spiritual practices that few in this province truly understand."It's sombre. It's spiritual. It's a different setting than just meeting in my office," said Struthers of the sweat this Friday in Hollow Water. "I don't want to pretend I know as much as elders on this, but I'm not exactly a rookie." 
  • Private Member's Bills: Where good ideas go to die.

    Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard introduced a private member's bill today to prohibit retailers from handing out plastic shopping bags. Straight up, two lines, no messing around. Give retailers a year to deal with it, but just ban the pesky bags that are the scourge of landfills and wildlife everyhwere. If Leaf Rapids can do it, so can the province. It would make us an international pioneer.It ain't gonna happen, because private member's bills almost always get treated with contempt by the NDP. It's a shame, too, because there is no reason that bill could be zipped through the house, signed by the Lieutenant Governor and passed into law in less time than it takes you to get through the express check-out at Safeway. That's what all the reporters in the gallery were muttering about today - how simple it should be but never is.Instead, we're gonna have to suffer through months or years of NDP consultation and studies and stewardship boards and other stuff that robs us all of a little bold leadership on the environment.It's not the first time Gerrard has had a good idea that got stymied. He said the province should just step up and ban dishwasher detergent with phosphates that are killing Lake Winnipeg. Instead of just doing it, the province has wasted months and years waiting and hoping Ottawa will do it for them.How lame. 
  • Calling Poplar River, Paris

    My colleague and I spent the day trying to figure out how the boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg might one day become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.That's a prestigious thing, and the process is brutal. It could easily take a decade.Key to all of this is the First Nations on east side. They stand to benefit from the eco-tourism generated by a world-class park, and their chiefs must be full partners in the planning and application process.Given that, why then are they always so incognito? Reaching a chief on the east side almost always involves a half-dozen surreal calls to band offices or cell phones that don't get answered or have voice mail boxes that are full. Band office staff never seem to know where a chief is or when he or she might be back. Earlier this week, I stood outside the office of the Southeast Tribal Council on Broadway for two hours (I wasn't allowed to sit inside) waiting for some chiefs to emerge from a meeting, figuring it would be easier trying to corral them all in one spot that to leave another round of messages that would never be returned. I gave up after a while.Contrast that with UNESCO. I settled in at my desk this morning for what I figured would be a day of dialling over a six-hour time difference to reach an official from UNESCO. It took one call to New York and one call to Paris and I was on the horn with UNESCO's section chief for Europe and North America. Nice woman. Very helpful. Easy as pie.Why aren't Manitoba chiefs as accessible?
  • Wishful thinking

    There's a new nugget of political jargon that keeps popping up these days. Aspirational. As in: The climate change targets agreed to at last week's APEC summit are "aspirational". Which means they sound nice, but we're probably not gonna get 'er done.As an aside, Conservation Minister Stan Struthers had a good line about the aspirational targets: "I've always had aspirations to play centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup," quipped the slight minister earlier this week. Anyway, the federal Tories were okay with that word last week in Australia. But today I happened upon a wire story from July about the UN declaration on indigenous rights that former Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice dissed as nothing but an "aspirational" document. Here's the excerpt from the CanWest news service.The UN declaration, first conceived in 1985, is frequently described as an "aspirational" document, setting out human rights standards to which states and indigenous peoples should aspire. The aim is to bolster dignity and hope among some of the most marginalized communities in the world.Prentice has derided the term "aspirational." Referring to the term in a letter to a newspaper, he remarked: "aspirational -- whatever that is." So I guess aspirational goals are alright on climate change, just not on aboriginal affairs. Good to know, next time I have an aspirational goal to pay my taxes.
  • Next time, how about a conference call?

    Back in the day, when Sam Katz was first mayor, there were rumblings from his office that he wanted to quit hauling his butt halfway across the country for endless big city mayors' meetings. There seemed to be one every couple of months, not much ever got done, and some inside his office wondered if they weren't a waste of time.Back then, I balked at that idea. I ranted like this: Winnipeg's mayor has to be part of the national discourse on urban affairs! How bush-league would we look if our mayor stayed home in Tuxedo while all the big guys hatched their grand plans in hotel board rooms in Toronto?! The new deal will fizzle!I was wrong.Sam was right.Those politician meetings are a total waste of time, money, greenhouse gas emissions, lung capacity, paper, finger sandwiches, Blackberry batteries and brain power. Don't let the "communiques" fool you. Nothing of use ever happens.The reason I say this now is because all the provincial environment and forestry ministers just finished gathering at the Fort Garry Hotel, a two-day affair so profoundly lacking in action that it boggles the mind.I guess they talked about a new plan to make sure we don't chop down all the country's trees. They wouldn't tell us what that plan was. I guess they talked about sewage and how to clean it up so it doesn't pollute lakes and rivers. But they didn't seem to come to any conclusions. No targets or deadlines or anything. There was rumblings the feds would announce some money to help upgrade municipal sewers. But they didn't. Greenhouse gas emissions came up. They said there was "meaningful collaboration" on that, whatever that means.Reporters stood around for about 90 minute Wednesday waiting for the ministers to emerge with some news, some rallying cry, some plan of action. Instead, we got a press release that talked about how the ministers are going to keep doing all the stuff they're already doing.What would happen if an environment minister - or any minister - boycotted those meetings and instead spent all the time and money on, I dunno, building a new wind farm, installing a new seperate sewer line, helping farmers comply with tough new nutrient rules, cajoling some polluters to add scrubbers to their smokestacks, rapid transit...?The list is endless, and it makes meetings like the one this week all the more frustrating to watch.  
  • Debt Dork

    It's a mind-bender for a rookie legislature reporter, how the NDP can crow about reducing the debt by $117 million when they've actually borrowed a whopping $716 million more. That's equal to the cost of the floodway. Or about three Manitoba Hydro towers. That they borrowed. Last fiscal year. According to new three volumes of financial statements released just after lunch on a Friday afternoon.The mind-bender hinges on "net debt" - a word the government gets to toss into press releases so they don't have to mention the fact that they actually borrowed another $716,000,000.00 last year.Net debt is a measurement that looks at all the easily-accessible cash the government has - investments, loans it can recall, money in any bank accounts, equity in government business enterprises - and subtracts any debt. Basically, take your bank account and your RRSPs and some of your paycheque and minus your Visa bill and your student loan you'll have your net debt. For most governments (except maybe Alberta), that always puts them in the red. Manitoba's net debt was negative $10.4 billion at the end of the last fiscal year. To be fair, it was $10.5 billion the year before, so there's some improvement, mostly because cash-flow improved. And, net debt per capita is down, as is net debt as a percentage of GDP. Whoa! Check me out.The net debt is meant to show how healthy the government's finances are, overall. It's a number auditors favour and one credit rating agencies check out. It's also a number that means pretty much nothing to the average person. Finding the real number, the one showing how much the NDP borrowed to balance their books, build roads and generally run the province - is waaaayyy trickier to find in the three volumes of finance bumph released last week.Getting an answer to that question took a schwack of e-mails and a long chat with an expert in the finance department. It's about  $12.3 billion, including Manitoba Hydro's debt. Don't ask me how many floodways that would pay for.Expect the Tories to crow about rising debt and maybe even drop the P-Bomb - as in the Pawley government, the credit-happy NDP administration that Today's NDP has tried so hard to distance itself from. And the NDP are going to keep telling you the (net) debt is down, hoping you don't read the fine print.Next week: Risk management and the use of derivative financial instruments. 
  • Trolling for polling

    Wanna see the latest poll the Manitoba government commissioned with your money?Well, you'll either have to muck around for days with voicemail and fax machines and e-mail attachments. Or you'll have to get in your car, come down to the Manitoba Legislature, find the communications office and ask for a copy.I guess that means it's technically public. They handed out a copy of the poll, done to gauge people's budget wishes, to the five or six reporters who work out of the Leg, accompanied by a rah-rah press release. But the poll itself wasn't posted online. You gotta ask for it.So much for "active disclosure" - releasing stuff in a way that's genuinely accessible before someone has to make a formal request or fiddle around with bureaucracy. More and more governments are taking tiny steps towards active disclosure - posting salary reports, expense accounts and the like online for anyone to peruse. Manitoba? Not so much. The poll is a case in point.All this is especially galling because the province won kudos from everyone last fall when Mayor Sam Katz refused to release a taxpayer-funded poll about the OlyWest hog plant. The argument was, the province always releases publically-funded polls - isn't that awesome?! - so the city should, too.The poll itself is not very interesting. I basically says everyone looooooves the NDP and wants more health spending. No shock there. So you'd think the province would go the extra step, click that mouse five or six times, post it online and embrace transparency.They didn't. So we did... priorities.pdf.

About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first covering city hall and then the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter. Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school. She has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category.

She was a Southam journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 2012-13, where she studied indigenous issues, urban planning and political science. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and has served on several boards.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

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