When Premier Greg Selinger stepped up to the podium in the cabinet room Tuesday to address demands he step down, he did exactly what was expected by some people who know him best: He dug in his heels.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2014 (2523 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Premier Greg Selinger stepped up to the podium in the cabinet room Tuesday to address demands he step down, he did exactly what was expected by some people who know him best: He dug in his heels.

"He's less likely to leave because now it's like he'd be giving in," said one NDP source who backed Selinger for the leadership and still backs him today.

In interviews with several NDP sources, few of whom wanted to go on the record, one word emerged again and again to describe the 21st premier of Manitoba: stubborn.

"Greg loves saying, 'It's the right thing to do,' " said one former NDP staffer. "He's got more integrity than most politicians but he also has an intellectually rigid view. He's tough to reach once he's made up his mind."

On Oct. 17, 2009, Selinger defeated Thompson MLA Steve Ashton decisively in a race to fill the big shoes of outgoing premier Gary Doer. The nearly two-to-one margin of victory, coupled with the backing of most of the caucus, almost all of the cabinet and most of the NDP's top policy wonks and election strategists, left many thinking Selinger walked into the premier's job backed by a party that was mostly united.

He was the nice-guy premier. He wasn't flashy. He was a little nerdy, very smart, and extremely experienced, having spent the previous decade as finance minister.

So what went wrong?

"His style is a bit problematic," said a former staffer. "He really did bring it on himself."

It started with Selinger not surrounding himself with his own people. He kept a lot of Doer's staff, even ones with whom he didn't mesh. The team -- many of whom were fiercely loyal to Doer and accustomed to Doer's style of leadership -- was often baffled by the new premier, who was intelligent but not always politically savvy, nice but not always open-minded.

"I don't think he figured out how to assemble a group around him that could tell him the hard stuff," said a former NDP staffer. "He also tends to shut out perspectives he doesn't want to hear."

Michael Balagus, Doer's chief of staff, stayed as Selinger's top aide for more than two years, and the two locked horns on style and substance. Balagus was approached for this story but did not respond.

Many felt Balagus's departure in January 2012 was long overdue, a chance to finally let Selinger put his own stamp on his tenure as premier.

But by the time Selinger began filling many of the key advisory roles with his own people, there were already cracks in the party. Labour unions felt ignored. The grassroots felt overlooked.

And perhaps most important to the events of this week, Selinger did little to heal the rift created in the leadership contest with those who originally backed Justice Minister Andrew Swan.

Swan was the first into the race but dropped out midway through. He shifted his support to Selinger, as did most of those who backed Swan, but not all did so happily. Some have spent the better part of the last five years being upset about the outcome.

Selinger, say the sources, did nothing to make amends with Swan's group. And some believe that divide is what is driving the palace coup.

"You will notice the people lined up behind Andrew Swan in the leadership are the ones lining up against Greg right now," said one of Selinger's supporters.

Of the five cabinet ministers who have spoken out against Selinger, only Jennifer Howard originally supported Selinger in that contest.

The others backed Swan.

So did Becky Barrett and Darlene Dziewit, both members of the provincial executive who have publicly called for Selinger to resign.

Not all members of Swan's original team are in the dissident group. Mineral Resources Minister Dave Chomiak and Kirkfield Park MLA Sharon Blady both stood with Selinger during last Tuesday's news conference.

And not everyone thinks the leadership leftovers are causing this.

"It's much more broad-based than that," said Wayne Copeland, a longtime NDP strategist and former provincial party secretary.

"I don't think you can point to the leadership stuff at all. Greg has been through an election. Everybody supported him in the election. He won the biggest majority that we've ever had in the election. The issues have arisen since that time."

The biggest of those issues is the PST hike.

In the 2011 election, Selinger said he wouldn't raise it. Eighteen months later, he raised it, blindsiding a lot of his own team in the process.

Numerous sources confirm the decision to raise the PST came less than two weeks before the 2013 budget was delivered. There was no time to develop the kind of public-relations campaign needed to sell such an unpopular move to the public.

The result was a public-relations disaster. Some people within the party call it "the lie."

Selinger has never apologized for it.

"Rather than accept he would have to apologize, he stubbornly went to ground," said one source.

Almost all who spoke to the Free Press said the policy itself was fine, it's how it was handled that upset people.

Surrounded by caucus members, Premier Greg Selinger told the media last Tuesday he is staying put. Five dissidents have called for him to step down because of low polling numbers.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Surrounded by caucus members, Premier Greg Selinger told the media last Tuesday he is staying put. Five dissidents have called for him to step down because of low polling numbers.

So where does he go from here?

Even most of those who think Selinger must step aside still really like him. His strengths, particularly on the national level, are immense.

Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, calls Selinger "a pretty competent, polished politician."

At premiers meetings, Selinger's decade as a finance minister gives him a knowledge base on certain federal-provincial fiscal arrangements that is unmatched.

"He is considered to be an expert on equalization, and I know from speaking to the premiers, how much he is respected," said Moist.

Moist said he backed Selinger for leader and he supports him today.

An insider from Selinger's leadership team said while the premier may not have the charisma of Doer, he has done a lot of positive things for Manitoba in the last five years.

"He may not be the smoothest of politicians, but he is sincere," she said.

"Sincerity just isn't sexy."

She pointed to an overhaul of Manitoba Housing and a focus on poverty the NDP base wanted but had been lacking in the Doer years.

Despite his strengths, not many people, even among those who still support him, think he will emerge from this crisis as the winner.

"When you look at these situations across the country, generally the leader has gone," said Copeland.

In 2010, British Columbia's then-premier Gord Campbell announced his resignation after months of plummeting support and calls for his resignation from within and outside his Liberal party.

Campbell had introduced a harmonized sales tax after promising not to do so in the previous election.

Ex-Alberta premier Alison Redford resigned earlier this year after her caucus turned on her because she charged taxpayers for a trip to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa and other allegations about inappropriate use of the government plane.

Selinger is not yet at those depths.

When Campbell resigned, his approval rating had sunk to nine per cent, a number so unfathomably low the B.C. online paper the Tyee noted even Richard Nixon was more popular in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Last winter, Redford's popularity had sunk to 18 per cent.

In September, the most recent approval rating available for Selinger, Angus Reid reported he had the approval of 30 per cent of voters.

Insiders have also told the Free Press the party's own internal polling is dismal.

Some Selinger backers think his detractors should get back to work and believe if they can just find a way to fix the PST debacle and move on, everything will be fine.

But one NDPer said people are looking across the floor at Tory Leader Brian Pallister and shaking over the idea of him becoming premier.

They believe the antidote to Pallister is a more charismatic and marketable NDP leader who doesn't have PST baggage.

One of Selinger's long-time staffers said the biggest obstacle Selinger faces isn't that five of the most visible and reliable cabinet ministers are not in his corner. It's that the two dozen or so political strategists who form the core of the party's election machine are also mostly not on his side.

"This is a big problem," she said. "It's not even the numbers of people, it's who they are."

And timing is crucial.

At best, the NDP has until the spring of 2016 before the next election.

Those who think the NDP cannot win the election with Selinger at the helm think the new leader has to be in place at least in time for the next budget, which can form the basis for the next election campaign.

That timing worked in B.C., where Christy Clark defied the odds (and a 20-point deficit in the polls) to return the Liberals to a majority government in 2012.

It worked in Ontario, where Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne overcame Dalton McGuinty's gas-plant scandal and won a majority government last June.

Copeland sees only one choice that would let Selinger hang on: He must call a leadership convention and run for the job again.

"I don't see any other way," said Copeland.

 

-- with files from Larry Kusch

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca