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Manitoba NDP candidate has long had foot in two worlds

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2009 (2834 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WINNIPEG - Greg Selinger has long had a foot in two worlds.

One of two candidates in Saturday's vote by delegates to elect Manitoba's new NDP leader and premier, Selinger is a former community activist in the inner-city, but was educated at the upper-crust London School of Economics.

During a decade as the province's finance minister, he cut personal and business taxes to try to boost the economy, yet maintained a reputation for pursuing social justice and has the support of many labour groups in his bid to become premier.

After a day of talking with business leaders and fellow politicians inside the stately legislative building, he dresses down and bicycles back to his constituency in Winnipeg's St. Boniface district, where he is known as a grassroots politician who has worked to enhance French-language services.

Selinger is both an economics wonk and a believer in a big social safety net.

"It's a lot easier to make a difference if the pie is growing, if the economy is growing," he said in a recent interview.

"So we've always tried to structure our policy-making to allow the economy to continue to grow. And, in doing that, you have more resources to pay for things like health care and education and community economic development and training."

Selinger, 58, grew up the son of a single mother in the middle-class St. James neighbourhood of Winnipeg. He became a social worker in the city's poverty-stricken north end.

"I worked in the schools in the inner city with parents and families. There were issues there with housing and adult education, glue-sniffing issues.

"I recognized that if you wanted to make change ... the best way to do that is to get involved in the political process."

He saw some of the city's poorest get involved with loan sharks - something that would prompt him, three decades later, to set strict limits on interest rates for short-term lenders, including payday loan companies.

He earned a PhD at the London School of Economics and took an interest in how economics are affected by government policies.

"I was focusing on social policy and how people can mobilize to create change for themselves and that's very compatible with being involved with the political process."

In 1979, Selinger founded Winnipeg's Community Economic Development Association, which helps inner-city residents get access to social programs and start small businesses. He was elected to city council in 1989 and chaired the city's finance committee. He quickly earned a reputation as a consensus-builder, according to a former colleague.

"When we were dealing with some issues in council, Greg was one that was able to communicate. He listened when we talked and we were able to have a dialogue," said Harry Lazarenko, who is still a councillor. "He was a team player."

Selinger lost a run at the mayor's chair in 1992 before he jumped to provincial politics in 1999. He won the St. Boniface seat and was named finance minister for the new NDP government. As keeper of the public purse, Selinger rode the middle ground as he cut small business and personal income taxes and boosted spending on hospitals, community colleges and social housing.

One of his boldest moves was to cut the income tax rate for small businesses from eight per cent in 1999 to zero by 2010.

He has had many critics.

Businesses have complained that his tax cuts paled in comparison to those in Saskatchewan and other provinces, while social activists have said welfare rates were not keeping pace with inflation.

But the middle-of-the-road approach helped the NDP capture larger majorities in 2003 and 2007. The NDP even managed to steal longtime Tory strongholds in Winnipeg's well-to-do suburbs.

That approach is unlikely to change if Selinger ends up with the province's top job. He takes great pains to stress that he wants to continue the work done by outgoing Premier Gary Doer, whose popularity with voters never waned.

"I think the vision we've brought in in Manitoba since Day 1 has been one we all shared in," Selinger said. "The government for the last 10 years has been all of us working together ... and we will continue the things that have been successful."

Selinger's tenure, however, has not been without controversy. While all 10 of his budgets have been balanced under provincial law, many were in fact deficits under normal accounting rules used by Ottawa and other provinces. Manitoba's overall debt has continued to grow.

Selinger also came under fire in 2007 following the meltdown of the Crocus Investment Fund, a labour-sponsored venture fund set up by the province. A leaked cabinet memo showed Selinger warned his fellow ministers in 2000 that Crocus was facing financial troubles, but the public was never told. Five years later, the fund went into receivership, leaving 34,000 investors wondering whether they could recoup their money.

The government responded to the controversy by saying the fund was run by an arm's-length board, so the province was not responsible for its performance. The affair didn't put a dent in the NDP's popularity.

On a personal level, Selinger acknowledges he'll have to spend a lot more time in front of television cameras and at public events if he becomes premier. It will be a big change for a man who appears more comfortable discussing government policy in small groups than glad-handing in crowds or speaking to large audiences.

"I think the role means you're more in the public eye, you're more out of the (legislative) building as opposed to being in the building when you're the finance minister working on budgets," he said.

"But the reality is that the overall purpose is the same - how to grow the economy, how to make sure all your citizens can participate in society and the economy, and to do it in such a way that you bring people together along the way."

Selinger and his wife, Claudette Toupin, have two sons.


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