Selinger dusts off, carries on

Next up, the provincial budget

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One hurdle done, another bigger hurdle to go.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/02/2014 (3213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One hurdle done, another bigger hurdle to go.

Premier Greg Selinger reportedly escaped a face-to-face confrontation with the NDP membership this past weekend with little or no additional damage inflicted upon his tattered mandate.

It was not a certainty he would get through unscathed. Still reeling from poor opinion-poll results, last week Selinger had to deal with an act of mutiny from within his own ranks.

Former cabinet minister Christine Melnick — who lied in the legislature about involving senior civil servants in a demonstration organized at the Manitoba legislature — publicly criticized the premier. She was ultimately expelled from the NDP caucus.

As the week wore on, Melnick’s claims about being mistreated at the hands of Selinger’s senior staff became increasingly questionable. Still, Melnick’s eruption and Selinger’s response were hardly banner achievements for a government looking for good news.

At this point, it appears Selinger’s senior political advisers — those same people who got dragged down into the whole Melnick affair — earned their keep this past weekend. Party members at the AGM did not pour salt into Selinger’s wounds by showing any sign of dissent over recent events.

That speaks to diligent, floor-level work by senior staff, who spent the weekend holding hands, patting shoulders and otherwise convincing the rank and file there was still reason for hope.

Selinger was present throughout the AGM, delivering a keynote speech Friday night in which he directly addressed the Melnick affair. Although it was likely the top-of-mind issue for New Democrats this past weekend, there were no obvious signs of rogue elements in the party demanding a review of Selinger’s leadership.

Perhaps the unveiling of a new negative TV advertisement aimed at PC Leader Brian Pallister helped. Nothing rallies the troops like a good old-fashioned, saucy attack ad.

Even though he deftly stickhandled through the AGM, Selinger is unlikely to get much of a respite. The premier and his team now have to turn their attention to the provincial budget, which should be tabled in April. And the fiscal outlook for the province is, to say the least, grim.

The second-quarter fiscal update, released in December, showed the province now expecting a $485-million deficit for this year, down $33 million in the budget. That is progress, albeit at a glacial pace.

The fact is the NDP desperately needs to balance the budget, both for the fortunes of Manitoba and for its own political health. Selinger has been rocked now by controversy and internal strife, but his greatest issue of vulnerability is the deficit.

Until now, however, Selinger has been rigorously devoted to a strategy whereby total spending has been slowed in some areas and modestly cut in others. Selinger has argued deep spending cuts would be devastating to core services. He has waited, patiently, for the economy to grow and produce the revenues necessary to shrink the deficit.

Selinger’s plan has, to some extent, come to fruition. The deficit is shrinking and core services have been spared the sting of deep austerity measures. However, the deficit is not falling fast or far enough to soothe the voters.

As a result, you can see a measure of desperation entering into the short-term fiscal management. This week, it was announced a full rollback of property taxes for senior citizens would be delayed by one year. The tax cut was a key 2011 election campaign pledge.

The province would like to eliminate the deficit altogether when it introduces a budget in the spring of 2016. That is also, coincidentally, an election year. Failure to eliminate the deficit by that date would likely break the camel’s back for Selinger and the NDP.

And it’s important to note even with austerity measures, Manitoba is already facing other threats to its bottom line. The province and Ottawa are in a dispute over the population figure used to calculate transfer payments. Ottawa reduced Manitoba’s population, which resulted in a $37-million revenue drop this year. More of this is expected next year.

And let’s not forget about the spring flooding season. Selinger is farther behind in reducing the deficit because of the extraordinary flood of 2011.

Although no governing party could ever completely overcome the $1-billion tab for flood fighting that year — half of which may be recovered from the federal government — the Opposition Tories have been effective in framing the huge costs of fighting the flood as evidence of a NDP spending problem.

It may well be that by the time the next budget comes forward, New Democrats will long for the days when they needed only to endure the allegations of an aggrieved ex-cabinet minister.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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