Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Premier calm, cool, collected

Sagging poll numbers, 15 years in office notwithstanding

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press
Premier Greg Selinger delivered a medley of NDP greatest hits to a chamber of commerce crowd in his annual address Thursday. He briefly mentioned the controversial PST hike, calling it a �difficult decision.�

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Premier Greg Selinger delivered a medley of NDP greatest hits to a chamber of commerce crowd in his annual address Thursday. He briefly mentioned the controversial PST hike, calling it a �difficult decision.�

If Premier Greg Selinger is worried about his political future, he certainly didn't show it.

Selinger took the stage Thursday for his annual state of the province luncheon address. He was, as he has always been, a model of composure.

Not that it's a difficult gig. The premier speaks immediately after the audience watches several feel-good videos. To date, no one has heckled or thrown food at a sitting premier. In other words, it's always been a safe, reasonably controlled event.

And yet, these are perilous times for Selinger and his government. Polls show the NDP trailing the opposition Progressive Conservatives by a significant margin. The treasury is still in deficit and some of Selinger's policies -- including a hike to the PST to fund infrastructure -- have provoked anger across constituencies.

Selinger has had lots of opportunity to practise his composure: He has been front and centre in the NDP effort to forge a positive message around the tax hike. And Thursday's speech was, in all respects, consistent with that message.

He emphasized the need to focus on long-term economic growth. He stressed the need to sustain government spending in core areas and increase investment in areas of greatest need, such as infrastructure.

Even so, the state of the province address -- organized by the public policy activists at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce -- is an interesting test for any politician trying to sell a message because of the nature of the audience.

While coverage of the speech from the throne goes out to the entire province, this is a much more select audience. The state of the province (and city for that matter) draws top professionals, executives, public officials and academics. It is, in the mass communications sense, a room full of opinion leaders.

The reaction to the speech itself was fairly muted. The premier got a few laughs. At the end of the speech, the momentum for a standing ovation grew at a glacial pace until, awkwardly, about half the room rose and applauded. That in and of itself is not significant; just ask Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, headliner for the state of the city speech, about awkward standing O's from this group.

Reaction at the speech is not really the issue here. More important is the reaction the attendees have later when they discuss it with co-workers, business partners, friends, family and other opinion leaders.

What people will take away from this speech? One thing everyone can agree on is Selinger is a font of statistical information about what's happening in Manitoba and how we compare to the rest of Canada.

His central theme for the past few years -- that Manitoba continues to perform above the average in most economic categories -- remains essentially true. However, his government's inability to slay the deficit, and his abhorrence of deep austerity measures, give true fiscal conservatives fits.

Heading into the last two years of this current term, it's clear Selinger will focus his messaging on all the good things government is doing with tax revenues, including the money generated by the increased PST.

Smaller class sizes in schools, enhanced early-childhood-development programs, more personal care homes, flood proofing of highways, improvements on major truck routes, strategic investments in projects such as Centreport and hundreds of millions of additional dollars into basic, core infrastructure.

Intellectually, these are all worthy, compelling uses of our tax dollars. And yet, the opinion polls show this NDP government is reaping less and less political credit for its policies.

If the public is tuning out Selinger's message, what if anything can he do to reverse that trend? After more than 15 years of NDP governing, it may be impossible to reverse the trend in opinion.

Certainly, Selinger has decided a more self-effacing posture is not the solution. As was reinforced Thursday, he will not apologize for bringing in a tax increase he once steadfastly denied he would ever consider.

Selinger made only one brief mention of the PST increase, calling it a "difficult decision" but one that needed to be made for the future of the province's infrastructure. Then it was back to a medley of greatest hits.

The province certainly has admitted it mishandled the launch of the PST increase by changing the focus of the new PST revenues on core infrastructure and meeting with key transportation and construction-industry leaders to design a long-term infrastructure plan. It's too early to tell whether all that is too little, too late.

Over the next few days, many of the hundreds of luncheon attendees will be spreading through word-of-mouth their impressions of the premier, his record and his posture on the tax hike.

And while Selinger may not seem worried now, he must surely know those opinion leaders will be difficult to sway as we get nearer to the next election.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A14

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