Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

After the train wreck: year-end interview with Premier Greg Selinger

2013 was a trying year for Greg Selinger -- and the province. Here's how the premier hopes to get things rolling again

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You get the feeling Premier Greg Selinger wants nothing better than to put 2013 in the rear-view mirror.

The past year saw the once-Teflon-coated New Democrats walloped by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives over their awkward introduction of the provincial sales tax hike last spring.

No sense to repeat the details -- it was simply a train wreck.

In the past three months, Selinger and his MLAs have attempted to pick themselves up off the mat as they head past the midway point of their four-year mandate.

First was the big cabinet shuffle in the fall. Then Selinger and his ministers fanned out across the province to talk up their plan to fix the province's roads and highways using PST revenue.

Will it work? Will it buy the NDP enough time that when the next election rolls around in two years, they have a fighting chance?

Free Press reporters Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen sat down with the premier to talk about the past year and his own future.

Will you be happy to see the calendar turn on Dec. 31?

Well, look, I think it's been challenging for all governments this year. We're all essentially struggling with same macro-challenges -- and that's continuing to find ways to come out of the global economic recession. I think our circumstances are really not that much different than most other jurisdictions in Canada. Obviously, there's different dynamics in each one. When I meet with other premiers, they're all wrestling with very similar issues.

But you raised the PST.

Clearly, Manitobans were caught by surprise by our budget decision. We obviously didn't want to do anything that would put Manitobans offside, so we made a real effort to go out and listen to what their priorities were and what they told us is, focus on core infrastructure. If you're going to raise additional revenue, put it to things that will really make a difference. We've taken account of that advice and focused our program on roads, sewer and water and flood protection for communities that are still at risk coming out of the 2011 flood -- particularly in the Assiniboine Valley.

But no question -- any time you have an increase in revenue, that catches people by surprise, that can cause consternation and anger in some cases. We're very aware of that.

A year ago, you said you would not be able to balance the budget until 2016-17. Is that still a target?

We still expect to work toward a balanced budget in 2016-17. It's clearly been made much more difficult now by this StatsCan population under-count, where they deleted 18,000 people from our population (reducing federal transfer payments to Manitoba). It's important, because those people are still showing up living in the province. It's a significant problem when you have the people with the needs, and the requirements to look after them, at the same time you see less revenue. But I remain optimistic that we can find a resolution to this. I've discussed it with the prime minister.

Critics say your estimate of $100 million less revenue in each of the next five years is a convenient excuse to continue to run a deficit beyond 2016-17.

It's an estimate. We are working toward that expectation and we are actually optimistic in our conversations with the federal government that when they understand the full details of the StatsCan estimate, and underestimate of 18,000 people, there will be a correction. It's an important issue for us and it is not a trivial matter.

If this thing does not get fixed, have you given any consideration to where you will cut?

Again, we think it's a fixable problem. The focus is on getting it corrected. We think that an objective analysis of the error made by Stats Canada will show that it's twice as large as any previous error of this type. That's the first focus. Budgets are always challenging. There's always a greater demand for resources than there are needs that need to be addressed. It's not going be easy. The challenge doesn't change -- the limits, the parameters get tighter and it forces you into even more hard work and due diligence to find a way forward.

How high a priority is balancing the books?

It is an important priority, because sustainability of your programs is important. But also providing services to Manitobans when they need them is important. Educating people and skilling them up is important. So it's a balanced approach. We want to take an approach that allows us to continue to grow the economy so that it's not like we've seen in other experiences in past decades or in other jurisdictions around the world where people are losing jobs or people are moving. We have a growing population. We have a younger province. The average age is about 37 now. And we want opportunities for those people to be able to put down roots and have decent jobs, good jobs in Manitoba and better assets. There's no question that we want to work back toward balance, but in such a way that we're all better off.

Municipal amalgamation was also a thorny issue. Would a less-fast timeline have been better?

When times are challenging, it's important to be innovative. And when times are really challenging, it's important to be even more innovative. The whole objective in any initiative we're taking is to strengthen our economic base and our population base and the capacity of our local communities to be able to grow. Municipal amalgamation has been discussed since 1964 and there are lots of folks who believe it's the right direction to take. It was one of those things that in many respects needed to be done, but we've tried to do it very respectfully.

Do you have a New Year's resolution?

My objective always is to continue to find a way to do your job better and to do a better job in this role and all the other roles you play in your life. For me, it's about staying on your game and staying focused on what matters.

You'll be 65 when the next election starts. Do you have it in you to run again?

My plan is to go again. I think we have a good program for Manitobans. We're going to continue to listen to them. We think we've had very good economic growth in this province and a good story in terms of the population. There are a lot of good things going on in this province and we think that ability to keep it moving in the right direction is fundamental to our future.

Have you ever asked yourself if there is something else you need to do to leave your mark?

I don't think there's a better job than the job I've got. That's why I'm motivated to come to work every day. This is a job that gives you a tremendous opportunity to make a better world for people. I like what I do. If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be doing a lot of this type of work as a volunteer. I'd probably be involved in the community anyway.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 A6

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