It was the end of an era.
Two weeks ago, Paul Vogt, the clerk of the executive council, quietly announced he was leaving the provincial government to return to academia. There was no fanfare or crush of media attention accompanying Vogt's departure. That is not because it was an unimportant event. Rather, it's a reflection of how little attention voters and journalists pay to the lives of the key people who make government run.
Most people have never heard of the clerk of the executive council, let alone understand what he or she does. As clerk, Vogt was a top adviser to former premier Gary Doer and current Premier Greg Selinger, helping develop and implement government policy. He was the main liaison with deputy ministers and a constant presence in daily meetings between the premier and senior political staff. In other words, he was the most senior, most important voice advising the premier directly.
Vogt was also the last member of an impressive team of advisers and strategists who engineered the NDP's 1999 election victory. The others included: union executive Bob Dewar, campaign manager in 1999 and 2003 who also served as Doer's first chief of staff after the election win; Eugene Kostyra, a former NDP finance minister who was a key campaign adviser and went on to serve as secretary to the Community Economic Development secretariat; David Woodbury, a key policy adviser who was Doer's eyes and ears on the Treasury Board; and communications director Donne Flanagan, a former journalist who died very prematurely of a heart attack in 2008.
But Selinger's current staff is not without experience. Many of his key advisers understudied with the 1999 election brain trust. Anna Rothney, secretary of the priorities and planning committee of cabinet, started with the NDP government in the early 2000s. Chief of staff Liam Martin, son of NDP MP Pat Martin, is a veteran organizer. Nammi Poorooshasb, Selinger's director of communication, gained a wealth of experience working for the NDP in Ontario before coming here. And there is Jim Eldridge, a former clerk of the executive council, who came out of retirement to serve as an adviser on intergovernmental and international affairs.
Even so, Vogt's departure marks a watershed in the evolution of an NDP government that will celebrate its 14th anniversary this October against a backdrop of profound political and fiscal uncertainty. Running behind the Opposition Progressive Conservatives in polls and still struggling to overcome a deficit, Selinger faces an April 2015 election that will be the most competitive since 1999.
Opinion in NDP circles is mixed about whether this new group -- a combination of new talent and accomplished understudies from the Doer years -- is ready for the next election.
Many insiders believe the preliminary test of the Selinger team was the most recent provincial budget, which was highlighted by a surprising decision to raise the provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure without holding a referendum as required under the balanced-budget law. This after Selinger and the NDP promised during the 2011 general election not to raise taxes to increase investment in infrastructure.
In this instance it is not so much what Selinger did, but how he did it. Or, perhaps more accurately, when he did it.
Some of that skepticism is Monday-morning quarterback stuff, the judgmental analysis of former Doer staff who would never acknowledge anyone can do it as well as they did. It deserves to be said that the PST hike did occur on Vogt's watch. Still, Vogt's departure definitely signals a generational shift in the staff that advise and support the premier. There are many ways to test a government, but right now attention is focused on a tax increase that may become the seminal issue in the next election.
If there is any saving grace for the NDP, it is that the budget is only the undercard in a larger, longer battle for control of Manitoba. A lot can, and likely will, happen during the next two years.
And as anyone in politics can tell you, an election result is the only true test of any political team.