Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice

with Mary Agnes Welch

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  • My election pledge

    I spent a cold and blustery election night in 2006 in the Selkrik Smitty's covering former Premier Ed Schreyer's race against James Bezan, the young farmer now the Tory MP for the Interlake riding. Is there anything more awesomely Canadian than that? Anyway, it was pretty clear early on that Ed wasn't going to win, so a lot of us spent the night ping-ponging between all the TVs in the banquet hall watching the returns from other ridings.There was a lot of swearing of the "Holy &*%#!!" variety when it became clear upstart video game motorized billboard guy Rod Bruinooge had defeated Reg Alcock. Nobody outside the Tory inner circle - not the smartest mainstream pundit or the most astute blogger - saw that coming. As one of many reporters who had totally ignored that riding, I was chastened.Nearly the same thing a few months later during the civic election, a race my colleague Bartley Kives and I thought we knew inside and out. There were more inklings that incumbent councillors Jae Eadie and Mark Lubosh might be in tough races, but I was still blown away to the point of deadline paralysis when they got soundly trounced.   So I have now learned that I have essentially no idea how a race will turn out on e-day. Without access to deep, deep polling data that mines the hearts of every voter, there is no way to gauge the outcome of races. We can guess and extrapolate, based on what the candidates are saying and doing, but we watchers don't really know. So we just shouldn't guess. Even in Portage-Lisgar and Provencher, where the Prime Minister could get caught on gay.com and still probably win.Election campaigns matter, and a lot can change in 30-some-odd days. Voters are not homogenous and they have the right to make up their minds without journalist pretending races are a foregone conclusion.So, in covering the looming federal election (only the first and last bits, because I am going overseas for three weeks) I promise to do my best to avoid predictions, even the ones couched by words such as "likely" and "expected." That doesn't mean we won't focus more on races that are obviously tighter than others, but I'd like to make a concerted effort not to totally ignore the ones that are "solidly held by the Tories" or "traditionally Liberal." Winnipeg Free Press subscribers will soon receive a ten-percenter in their mailboxes to that effect.
  • Elmwood-Transcona knee-dippers, you've had 531 days to find a federal candidate.

    Elmwood-Transcona NDP MP Bill Blaikie announced his plans to retire in March, 2007. That's a year and a half ago, and the riding still can't seem to get its crap together to find a star candidate or nominate one of the three people already running. Well, two declared candidates - CUPE's Kevin Rebeck and nurse Lorene Mahoney - and MLA Jim Maloway, who has been playing coy for months.

  • Advice to advance teams

    Have a political press conference in a church. You get softball questions asked in hushed, respectful tones. Even better if your guy is surrounded by some ministers (the god kind, not the cabinet kind) and a few women war veterans.That's what happened this morning at a Vic Toews presser at Holy Trinity Anglican downtown. It was nothing more than a pre-election event so Toews could talk tough about the looming vote, gussied up with a $25,000 donation to the lovely old church's stained glass window restoration.That church just sapped us of our cynicism. We couldn't needle and interrupt and eye-roll with a reverend looking on. No one even hinted around the edges of Toews recent personal issues or his flirtation with a judicial appointment. Smart move, Tories.
  • Stumping in Swan River

    Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen did a little tour of the province's northwest last week, hitting Swan River, Roblin, Dauphin and a couple other spots. He was also in Brandon, where he did a little door-knocking in a few targeted polls.Today, Premier Gary Doer is in Swan River and The Pas, doling out some housing money. There's also been a little splash of federal/provincial cash in Brandon, lately, too. Doer was there this morning with Treasury Board President Vic Toews dropping off some cash for the city's new Y.Coincidence? Wonder if the west side power line came up?
  • Endless, Dumplings take on Gold

    You gotta back up the guy who is brave enough to flip the bird to the bully, so I am. Curtis Brown finally said what should have been said ages ago. I'm sure Curtis, and West End Dumplings will both get soundly trashed for the next several days on TGCTS, or at least until Marty Gold blows the lid off the next story about the profound infallibility of the Winnipeg Police Service. 
  • Pat Martin watchyerback

    My mouthy NDP MP might want to take a break from the chaos of his federal ethics committee and do some quickie polling to make sure he's still going to win his Winnipeg Centre seat by a bajillion votes. The federal Tories dropped another ten-percenter in my mailbox last night - this one from Saskatchewan MP Garry Breitkreuz.Do the Tories know something we don't know? Is Pat's 7,000 vote margin of victory shrinking? I've heard Winnipeg South Centre Grit MP Anita Neville complain bitterly about the ten-percenters dumped into her riding, one the Tories could conceivably win. But Winnipeg Centre? Tell that to Stanley Knowles.That's the second Tory flyer I've had in two weeks. Curtis Brown wrote about the first one from a Vancouver Island MP late last month. This latest flyer was about drug addicts and how our playgrounds are littered with needles and drug dealers are prowling schoolyards looking to hook kids on the junk. It's all a bit melodramatic, and the American-style over-sell trivializes a complex problem. Plus, it kind of gets up my nose that some MP from small-town Saskatchewan or idyllic Vancouver Island is trying to talk tough about drugs in a riding he's probably never been to and that has genuine problems that deserve a little more thought than a scare-tactic photo of a dirty needle under the baby swings. 
  • Plus ca change...

    Tory boss Hugh McFadyen un-shuffled his shadow cabinet today, basically putting it back to the way it was before the election.

  • Way to work it, Edmonton (and Saskatchewan is still kicking our butt)

    Two little gripes that should be filed under: Why aren't we doing that?First, my colleague Bruce Owen and I just got snazzy flashdrive gadgets in the mail, courtesy of the city of Edmonton's communication's department - some pretty slick marketing. In Winnipeg, the communications department can't even answer simple questions about road paving before deadline.A couple months ago, the Canadian Association of Journalists had its annual conference in Edmonton and the city's tourism army came out in force - there was a drink night with the mayor (who looks just like Sam) and major bumph. Now, Edmonton has sent us (and presumably all the other conference-goers) a USB thingy loaded with flak phone numbers (U of A, the city, the health authority) plus story ideas and a bunch of propaganda about Edmonton. "Edmonton is a city alive with boundless energy and opportunity...we want to share our story with you," the letter reads. They even spelled my name right!Most reporters will probably delete the info on the USB drive and use it to store the latest Cornie the Mennonite video, but it's still a great idea. They really made the most out of having a bunch of reporters holed up in hotel board rooms. When the conference was held in Winnipeg a few years ago, we got pamphlets from Destination Winnipeg and that was about it.Second, why does Saskatchewan have 11 Olympic athletes going to Beijing and we only have two? That's pretty lame at a time when the city is investing millions in community clubs and recreation, a new indoor soccer complex is in the works, the Doer government has made phys ed mandatory for grades 11 and 12 and sports funding was a key promise of all the parties during last year's provincial election.
  • Doors Closed

    This gripe doesn't have much to do with the provincial government, except that it owns, funds or manages most of the buildings I am griping about. I have harboured this gripe for a while but a rainy night at the Fringe last week reminded me of it.Why is every door downtown locked? Most buildings - the courthouse, the Legislature, the Manitoba Museum - have multiple entrances, sometimes one on every street. But only one door is open and it's never the one you're at.Let's start at the Law Courts. I can see the old courthouse from my window at the Leg but I can't actually get into it. The court complex probably has six doors, but only one is open and it's the one farthest from me - a big deal when it's minus 40. Yeah, it's only another block. And, yeah, I understand the need for security, but it's still supremely annoying and very discouraging for pedestrians.Next, let's try to get into the confusing complex created by the Manitoba Museum and the Centennial concert hall during the Fringe, when bajillions of people are downtown, for once. On my way from Old Market Square to the Planetarium Fringe venue, I tried no fewer than three doors looking for a shortcut into the venue to get out of the crappy wind and rain. Every door on Main Street was locked, and I had to hoof it around the corner. Then, after the show was over, the tunnel to city hall was dark and locked, so we couldn't use that to bypass the rain and get a little closer to our next show. Way to promote green pedestrian power, city fathers. Couldn't you have left the doors open during the one time people are actually in The Exchange?How about my own building, the Manitoba Legislature. There's four doors (six, counting the basement entrances) and only one is really open to the public. If you are walking over from Osborne Village, you have to walk all the way around to Broadway to get in. At that point, you'd probably give up investigating the internal workings of a parliamentary democracy and just continue on to The Bay to look at shoes.Another related gripe - surface parking lots. There's a lot to hate about surface parking lots, but here's one more thing: The waist-high wooden fences around all of them. Very often, I try to cut across a surface lot - the one just east of the Burt, for example - and I get stuck in the pen. Yeah, I can hike up my skirt and leap over or double back and walk around, but it's just one more small thing that makes the downtown totally pedestrian unfriendly. 
  • Smoking part II

    The Hack says I'm wrong about the finer points of the Jenkinson smoking decision. http://hacksandwonks.blogspot.com/Here's the highly-technical Court of Appeal decision.http://www.canlii.org/en/mb/mbca/doc/20082008mbca28/2008mbca28.htmlIt says, essentially, that the province didn't discriminate against Mr. Jenkinson because he could, theoretically, open up his own bar on a reserve. The Hack is probably right - the decision doesn't explicitly say the province can't enforce the ban on reserve, but that's the practical application of the decision, and it was the undercurrent of the arguments made by First Nations interveners. The decision was a huge victory for the province and put the issue to rest, allowing the ban to stand off-reserve based on the principle that the province has no authority over First Nations.In related news, Portage-Lisgar MP Brian Pallister called to say he made a rookie mistake Monday. He failed to catch the Court of Appeal decision that overturned Clearwater. Fair enough.
  • Election objection

    Why is the province's democracy watchdog the least accountable agency in Manitoba? I know I sound like Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux, but the guy has a point. It's a little Zimbabwe-esque over there at Elections Manitoba. I'm not even talking about high-level accountability stuff. I'm just talking about a decent website and staff that returns phone calls.Here's my beef: Elections Manitoba did a poll following last year's election to gauge how their voting plans went. They do a poll like that after every election, I'm told. I've been asking for that poll for more than a year. In a faux-cheerful and slightly embarrassed way, I call about once a month asking when I can see the poll. I get the brush off, or my calls and e-mails go totally ignored. Par for the course at Elections Manitoba. Typically, half our calls on any given subject get returned. Except during the election when they had a temporary guy (Wayne?) who was pretty good to deal with.Premier Gary Doer says all polls paid for by taxpayers ought to be public, and Manitoba's Ombudsman made that policy official a few years ago after she ordered the city to release an OlyWest poll. The "polls are public" provision is even in the province's new access to information legislation that's slated to be passed this fall.But, foiled again. Elections Manitoba isn't covered by the FOI law.Another beef: The Elections Manitoba website sucks. I've said it before, but every time I surf over there for a simple figure, I yell it again to whomever is in my office. I can't ever find what I want and end up walking across the office to our bulletin board to peer at the yellowing Freep results page we print on election night. I know how crazy election night is in our newsroom, and I'd much rather get the definitive data from the pros who count the ballots. But their website is hard to navigate. Basic information (like, what percentage of the total vote did the NDP get?) is buried so deep you might as well get out your calculator and do the math yourself. There is virtually no historical information. Ottawa is so, so much better, thanks to a nice one-two combo of the Elections Canada site and the Parliament of Canada site, which has the voting history of every riding in every permutation. In Manitoba, we've got Wikipedia.In a province that doesn't exactly have a stellar election rep - vote rigging, pitiful turnout in remote areas, our own mini in-and-out scandal - you'd think Elections Manitoba could at least return a call or two.  
  • What's Pallister smoking?

    Outgoing Portage-Lisgar MP Brian Pallister issued a press release today slagging the nearby Long Plain First Nation for allowing smoking in its VLT lounge and conference centre, and chastising the province for not enforcing the province-wide smoking ban on reserves.That's interesting, I said to myself as I waited for the teachers' pension hearings to begin. This will give me a chance to speak to Pallister, which I have never done before, which says something about him and me. I fired off calls to Pallister, Chief Dennis Meeches and the province for comment and then I realised Pallister had it exactly wrong.The province can't enforce the ban on First Nations. It doesn't apply there and never has, and the courts said so. In a back-and-forth case that ended in March, Manitoba's Court of Appeal reaffirmed the rights of First Nations to be exempt from provincial law. That was, you'll recall, the case of Treherne bar owner Robert Jenkinson who challenged the law as unfair because it applied only to off-reserve bars like his. The court sided with the First Nations, not Mr. Jenkinson.At best Pallister made a silly mistake. At worst, it's a totally disingenuous bit of spin meant to make the province and Long Plain look bad, one that assumes that every reporter will be as dumb as I momentarily was. Pallister even quoted the orignal Clearwater decision that found in Jenkinson's favour, a decision that was criticized by constitutional experts and firmly overturned on appeal.Since it can't legislate, the province is using the backdoor, refusing to renew VLT licenses unless First Nations bars go smoke-free, like Brokenhead's South Beach Casino did. Long Plain's license isn't up yet, according to the province.Back in 2006, Prentice was asked about a national ban that would apply fairly to everyone, including First Nations, and he said he didn't support one. "I don't think it's appropriate for the federal government to pass a piece of legislation that applies to all First Nations on this issue," he told The Sun.
  • Teach-in

    Next week, the Leg committee rooms will be a-hummin' again as the teachers' pension issue goes to public hearings. There are nearly 400 teachers in the queue waiting to speak, and I expect most will vent about the two-thirds cost of living pension increase they're being offered. Not enough, they say, even though it would double their COLA hike this year and even though current and former teachers voted to accept it. The province also backfilled their pension liability by $1.5 billion, which looks none too good on the province's debt line.There was a letter to the editor recently complaining about the fact that the hearings are being held in the evening - an unsafe time for seniors to be out and about downtown and an inconvenient time to take the bus. That will be the kindest and most reasonable argument I expect to hear on Monday.The retired teachers are the single most relentless and implacable lobby group I've encountered in my brief time at the legislature. The Taxpayers Federation could take a lesson. The teachers make large and frequent appearances in the House gallery, and every reporter who touches the pension issue gets a mini-avalanche of e-mails and calls and letters to the editor - some quite rude and strident.I recall getting geeked up on the issue when I first arrived here, thinking Teachergate could be a great story, the injustice of our noble educators spending their retirement days in poverty. My interest waned after I started calling some retired teachers. In Florida.
  • Hello, Sandra Buckler? Hugh McFadyen here....

    Dang, what do the Tories need to do to keep a flak?Melissa Ridgen, the Tories' latest director of communications, resigned late last week. She came up to the press room to let us know yesterday in a most casual way. It's not a huge shock. She was a controversial figure in these halls - intense, immature, relentlessly partisan and a bit impolitic. She was always calling the NDP "commies," she wasn't great on the nuances of policy wonkery and she had a habit of firing off snitty e-mails in the morning when she didn't like a story. Plus, there was that DUI in Brandon. Many said Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen should have fired her right away.But, in a building full of tight-lipped and tip-toey young party workers who have all sipped a little too much orange Kool-Aid, I had to admire her candor and pizzazz. She grew on me as the session wore on. And the Tories did seem to finally get a bit of momentum in the spring with a filibuster that forced the NDP to back down (at least for a couple months) on their legislative agenda. So I thought maybe she might settle in to the job, though it's a role that really requires some long-term vision and some sophisticated strategizing. I'm not sure that's the forte of any former reporter who can't see three phone calls into the future let alone three years.As someone smarter than me said, it's also a slog being an opposition staffer, especially when Doer has such a grip on power and never does anything interesting enough to risk a mistake. It's clearly been tough getting someone good to take the job and stay long enough to make a difference, just like it's hard to assemble a roster of really great candidates. I've never seen a really good opposition flak long-term and up close. I'm not sure what one looks like. 
  • Hugh Abroad

    Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen is finishing up an official trip to the Philippines today after travelling for a few days with Foreign Affairs people and Edda Pangilinan, the Philippine Honorary Consul General of Manitoba. They're doing the typical trade mission stuff - going to a business fair, talking with companies interested in doing deals in Canada, meeting briefly with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA, for short), talking about immigration. It's a lot like the trade mission Premier Gary Doer went on in February, one of a dozen trips he's taken so far this year.There's three interesting things about McFadyen's voyage.First, the fact that Pangilinan was on the trip - she raised a stink in February when she wasn't invited to go on Doer's ride, and some (the Tories) viewed it as a faux pas.Second, between this trip and some to First Nations up the east side of Lake Winnipeg, McFadyen is sure acting like a statesman-in-waiting, even though a new poll shows the wait could be looooong. I kind of wonder why folks in the Philippines would care about meeting an opposition leader from a small Canadian province - he can't dole out business start-up grants, speed up professional accreditation processes or crack down on shady immigration agents. But he's going anyway, like a hopeful one-day premier would.I wonder if this trip isn't more about a third thing - trying to woo the ethnic vote and make inroads into some of the most politically active communities in the province. After the election, the party hired former West End Biz boss Trudy Turner for a few months to help reach out to some of those groups before the next election, and McFadyen can trade on his trip for years when he's schmoozing Filipino voters.Meanwhile, Romy Magsino was awarded the Order of Manitoba last week. He was one of the NDP's star candidates in the last election, former dean of education at the U of M and heavyweight in Winnipeg's Filipino community. 
  • Fudgee-O Tax?

    The province released the polling it did before the budget today. It was pretty boring: Most people feel pretty good about the economy and the job the NDP are doing and health care is still the top spending priority. Shocker. But here's a couple of interesting bits.

  • Shout out to the PUB and PITT

    Public Utilities Board - one of those vague, governmenty-sounding phrases that makes readers quickly flip to the comics. I was one of those readers until I started actually skimming through PUB testimony a while back. As part of Manitoba Hydro's latest rate application, Hydro's senior officials got grilled for days and days this spring by some very smart lawyers who ask some refreshingly simple questions and got some pretty straight answers - way straighter than I get when I call over to Hydro, despite Bob Brennan's affable charm. PUB stuff is a surprisingly interesting read, even laugh-out-loud funny in parts. And it offers this great window into the company that's at the core of the Doer government's policies and at the core of Manitoba's economy. It's a goldmine for anyone interested in Hydro. Which would be me and Ed Schreyer, basically.And Pissing in the Tent, apparently. He beat me to the tidbit about Hydro maybe building a natural gas plant, which was part of a little exchange buried in thousands of pages of PUB testimony. I was kinda hoarding that nugget for a slow summer day. Fair play, PITT.
  • Snap!

    Here's a little zinger tucked into Culture and Heritage Minister Eric Robinson's speech yesterday about the residential schools apology - an insider reference for all you media junkies."Yesterday morning I heard a media personality here in Winnipeg question whether an apology was necessary. Excuse me, but it's the survivors who decide what's appropriate here and now, not those who believe they know what's best, because it's that kind of thinking that spawned the residential school system in the first place."
  • Three more days and counting

    Question Period has been pretty fun lately for those of us who revel in the theatrical absurdity of it all, but the Speaker seems to be getting pretty fed up with the heckling. There's just three more days to go before the house rises as planned Thursday and everyone is tired and punchy from the marathon filibuster last week. Today was one of those days that was stop-and-start, where no one (not even Doer) could get more than half a sentence out before drowning in heckles. As he always does, Tory MLA Ron Schuler wins the award for the most relentless jibes, most aimed at the Premier. And they're pretty personal, even though Schuler told a recent gathering of U of W students that he tries not to get personal in QP."Back to your tequila!" he shouted endlessly at Doer, a reference to the Premier's moderately pointless trip to Mexico for a trade route summit last week. "Is that a little Pepto-Bismol on your tie?"After one of those, we heard Speaker George Hickes mumble "Oh, man," before standing up to demand order for the 48th time."Let's have some respect for the dignity of this house and the guests that are with us today," said Hickes as a big class of Hutterite kids looked on.Good luck with that, Mr. Speaker.
  • The Great and Painful Filibuster of 2008: Who won?

    The Tories, but it's a political victory more than a policy one.Last night, at about 9-ish, after endless negotiations, the NDP basically pulled their entire legislative agenda off the table and delayed it until the fall. That's the balanced budget overhaul, the elections changes, the access to information tweaks and the hog barn ban. There's some other little bills that will pass, but none are hugely significant.The NDP capitulation comes after days of old-fashioned time-wasting by the Tories. They also stacked the committee meetings with their own people and finagled the rules so that just a handful every night got up to speak. That threatened to stretch things out into July.It's not like the party rallied huge public opinion against the balanced budget bill or the elections overhaul - the public doesn't care, frankly, and the Tories probably can't make them, even if they have all summer. But the PCs did rally their own people - a good 150 of them - which is something one Tory supporter said hasn't happened in an effective way for years. The NDP didn't expect that kind of organised gridlock because it's never really happened before. The Tory called it "a chink in the NDP's armour."Problem is, all the bills will probably pass pretty much as written in September. This was a wiener-measuring contest, and the Tories won, but the NDP still wears the pants.

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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