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Selinger says he's sorry, so sorry, but will it help?

A still from the new ad from the NDP.

A still from the new ad from the NDP.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2016 (1132 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Starting today, Premier Greg Selinger will bet his political future on a new advertising campaign that offers Manitobans something pretty unusual: a qualified apology for the mistakes he and his government have made over the past few years.

The campaign — which takes the form of television, print and radio ads — is built around the admission that as a provincial government, they “haven’t always gotten it right.”

“This last year has been difficult, and we haven’t always gotten it right,” Selinger says in a television spot and an open letter to voters that will be officially unveiled this morning. “But know that we’ve always had the best interests of Manitobans at heart in our decisions.”

Selinger does not specify what he didn’t get right. One can assume that at the top of the list would be the clumsy manner in which he introduced a PST hike to fund infrastructure. That directly contradicted a pledge he made in the 2011 election to steer clear of PST hikes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2016 (1132 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Starting today, Premier Greg Selinger will bet his political future on a new advertising campaign that offers Manitobans something pretty unusual: a qualified apology for the mistakes he and his government have made over the past few years. 

The campaign — which takes the form of television, print and radio ads — is built around the admission that as a provincial government, they "haven’t always gotten it right."

"This last year has been difficult, and we haven’t always gotten it right," Selinger says in a television spot and an open letter to voters that will be officially unveiled this morning. "But know that we’ve always had the best interests of Manitobans at heart in our decisions."

Selinger does not specify what he didn’t get right. One can assume that at the top of the list would be the clumsy manner in which he introduced a PST hike to fund infrastructure. That directly contradicted a pledge he made in the 2011 election to steer clear of PST hikes.

The apology is really only the hook for the ad campaign, which spends the majority of its time pointing out the progress the NDP claims it’s made in education, health care and downtown revitalization. 

'It's been a tough year, and we haven't always gotten it right...'

"What we are trying to do is reach out and have an honest conversation with Manitobans," said Jeremy Read, the NDP campaign director. "We want to speak to the issues that are important to them… but not gloss over the problems of the last couple of years. We want people to know we’re on their side and that we’ve accomplished a lot over the years."

It’s hardly a stretch to point out this campaign, delivered now, has more than a whiff of desperation. Of course, at this stage — less than 60 days away from an election that opinion polls tell us the NDP is poised to lose — desperation might be appropriate.

In this, the NDP’s 17th year in power, voters seem to want change for change sake. As a result, there is a concern in NDP circles that short of something really unusual or remarkable — such as a qualified apology — they may be able to do very little to impress voters.

Can a frank apology win back the hearts of voters? Political history offers a mixed verdict.

In some cases, ostentatious humility did carry the day. The most obvious example is from 2011, when then-Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty did a television ad — one alarmingly similar to the Selinger ad — in which he admitted he "isn’t the most popular guy." However, he went on to outline his government’s accomplishments after reminding voters "doing what’s right is not always what’s popular." The Liberals won an improbable victory in that election, with McGuinty’s self-effacing posture playing a big role.

However, in other cases, apologies did not impress anyone.

In 1999, then-Manitoba premier Gary Filmon repeatedly apologized for his party’s role in the 1995 vote-rigging scandal, but to no avail; his party was trounced in the election. And in 2004, former prime minister Paul Martin apologized profusely to Canadians for the Quebec sponsorship scandal to fend off debate in an election. Voters were not impressed; the Liberals were re-elected but with only a minority. He would lose outright in the 2006 election.

In every example, a political leader decided to use a mea culpa to defuse an allegation being levelled by a political opponent. In two of those, the apology was truly an electoral Hail Mary, tossed up in a desperate bid to change the trajectory of an election.

The theory is not entirely unsound, particularly if in admitting to something you are defusing a key allegation levelled by your opponents. The downside is this strategy isn’t likely to win over a majority of voters, particularly when the party using the mea culpa has been in power as long as the NDP.

There are other concerns here. The "not gotten things right" slogan could be too vague for its own good. At this stage, voters might have preferred to hear a more direct admission, like "We made mistakes." If voters do find the catch phrase too cute by half, this could make things worse for the NDP.

It’s also probable the mea culpa is a bit too late in the game to have the desired effect.

For a year after the PST increase was unveiled in the 2013 budget, Selinger avoided a direct apology, claiming the decision to proceed with the tax hike was fully debated and supported by his cabinet. After a group of ministers went rogue and called for Selinger to step down, we learned the premier moved unilaterally to increase the tax, against the advice of many in cabinet.

NDP sources say the mea culpa campaign now is an effort to ensure every voter understands Selinger has apologized for this policy gaffe.

Some voters will undoubtedly see nobility in a politician willing to admit he made a mistake.

Others will see only a leader so desperate to hang on to power, he is willing to say anything.

In the April 19 election, this ad campaign will either be Selinger’s salvation or just the last in a long string of things he didn’t get quite right.

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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Updated on Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 8:01 AM CST: Replaces art

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