Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice

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  • 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.
  • Geotherm that Golden Boy

    Every new legislature reporter feels compelled to write about how brutally hot it gets under the dome in July. There's no AC in the old stone Leg, probably one of three buildings downtown without it. The last week has been awful - sweaty and oppressive. You know it's bad when the fringe beer tent seems like a welcome relief.In the past, pols of all stripes have said installing AC in the Leg is a no-go. It would cost millions and it would spawn a taxpayers' revolt. But, I can tell you, not much gets done around here when it's 36 degrees and your mouse won't work because it's all shorted out from sweat. Taxpayers aren't getting much value for the salaries their paying because everyone is lethargic. And I bet the power bill for all the ancient fans whirring away in every office is outrageous - Manitoba Hydro's secret way of recouping all the money the government raids from the Crown corp's pofits.Here's my question: Why can't the province install geothermal heat pumps at the Leg?Seriously, if geothermal is Manitoba Hydro's new toy, the environmentally-friendly heating and cooling system they're touting for Waverley West, why not go big and install it in the Leg? Manitoba could have the greenest seat of government in Canada. There's room in the Leg gardens for all the underground pipes you need. The province is going to have to replace the old radiators at some point. I bet productivity would skyrocket in July and August. Ministers wouldn't walk around looking so unprofessionally greasy all the time. I know Premier Doer could sell it to voters.Moving forward with more comfy working environs....
  • On Second Thought....

    So a friend of mine was at a Fringe play on Sunday - the five-star show called On Second Thought. It's about as gay as gay can be. There are jokes about gay porn. There is a guy in a thong with a lizard on it. There's a spontaneous rant about how homophobic the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is.So who should my friend spot sitting right in front of him?Vic Toews.Yes, that would be the arch-conservative MP for Steinbach, who staunchly opposed gay marriage, spoke at rallies where people spewed a fair bit of homophobic vitriol and once said legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy.My friend said Toews was guffawing at even the raunchiest bits, and seemed to have a great ol' time. Word is, he's been spotted fringing all weekend.On Thursday, my friend and I are going to see C**ksuckaz present Bash'd, the latest show by the comedic geniuses who produced GoyGroove. Maybe we'll see Min. Toews there?
  • Secrets make bad spin

    On Wednesday afternoon, reporters were summoned down to the Legislature's communications office in the basement to pick up the box of Spirited Energy bumph the province has been hoarding for months.I whisked it up to my office (Only two hours to deadline! Gotta hurry!) expecting Watergate/Iran Contra/vote-rigging/sponsorship to erupt the moment I pried off the lid.You know what? There's nothing in there. Every Tory MLA and Leg reporter, including me, will spend whatever quiet moments they have for the next few weeks parsing each invoice and each focus group report looking for the smoking gun that proves Spirited Energy is a lame slogan and waste of money. But I bet my first impression is right. It's all pretty much on the up-and-up, and most bills are pretty reasonable.But we're all going to do stories anyway. I've done two. CJOB's done lots. I bet a certain columnist does lots. Why? Because the province stamped its feet and hid behind the skirts of its own access legislation and childishly refused to release the details of just how it spent taxpayers money.It's news because they didn't want it to be. If they'd just released all the documents last fall, I bet that box would still be sitting in the corner of our office, barely opened.
  • The Less-Than-Full Monte

    Likeable Monte Solberg, the federal social services minister, did a blitz through Winnipeg Tuesday, stopping at an Aboriginal housing project and at a daycare at the Y in St. Charles. There, he touted the one-year anniversary of his government's child care benefit, the program that gives families $100 per kid for daycare.His visit was notable because it produced absolutely no news. Like, none. At the Y, there were speeches, cake, testimonials from grateful parents and a whole mess of cute kids playing with red and white balloons. But no news.In fact, it was the worst kind of manufactured press event that media outlets — the Free Press included — diligently cover because it's quiet and it's July and it's a federal minister and you never know what might happen, and since we're here let's get some quotes and fill a few minutes/columns.If a first birthday starts being news, a whole world of possibilities opens up. Watch the paper this week for a story about the one-year anniversary of the province's avian influenza examination program for small poultry flocks. Next month? Well, that's the first anniversary of a $5.4 million government grant to Neepawa's sewage plant. Sure hope there's cake!There was one tiny interesting thing about Solberg's visit: The province wasn't invited to the event at the Y. Granted, the child care benefit is a totally federal program, and it's one the province doesn't much like. But City Councillor Grant Nordman, a Tory, was invited to the presser. Local MLA Jim Rondeau wasn't, and neither was the province's social services minister. In fact, the province didn't even know the event was happening. That's odd. None in the army of federal press people at the Y could explain it.
  • Manitoba's Missing Moulah

    A friend sent me a very interesting link to a CTV story by political coro and blogger David Akin. He tallied up the flurry of summer spending announcements the federal Tories have made in the last two weeks. That's 78 announcements worth $5 billion.Manitoba's take? Just $780K for three announcements. I can't even recall what they all were. The downton homeless shelter called Hannah's Place was probably one. Some biodiesel thing Thursday was probably another.Compare that to Atlantic Canada, where the Tories are faltering. They got 43 seperate spending announcements. Vote-rich Ontario raked in $34 million, according to Akin's tally.Meanwhile, Manitoba is waiting to start negotiating an infrastructure deal to fund the massive, provincewide sewage treatment overhaul, which probably easily tops $2 billion since Winnipeg's share alone is $1.2 billion and counting. There's also Kapyong, the east-west power grid, all sorts of outstanding issues that could use a few federal bucks and a visit from the PM.

About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and 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, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

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

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