The power of floods on politics and leadership

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The flood of 2011 was the beginning of the end for Greg Selinger’s government.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/09/2016 (2208 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The flood of 2011 was the beginning of the end for Greg Selinger’s government.

When it struck, Selinger had been premier for a year-and-a-half. Before that, he had served as finance minister in the government of Gary Doer, and in this role, he earned a reputation as a careful steward of provincial finances, overseeing a decade of balanced budgets.

Manitoba’s NDP was then held as an exemplar of a left-of-centre government pursuing progressive policies while being fiscally responsible. But all that changed in the spring of 2011.

As the water levels rose, so did the bills. The flood disaster on the Assiniboine River, Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin was the most expensive in Manitoba’s history. The direct cost to the provincial and federal governments surpassed a billion dollars. Add in the largely untallied costs to private citizens, and that figure probably soars to well over $2 billion.

As a consequence, there was zero chance of balancing the provincial budget in 2011, or the year following. Events beyond Selinger’s control derailed the province’s finances, and he never recovered fiscal control.

Like the person fighting a weight problem who starts wearing sweatpants, Selinger appeared to have just given up. Short-term flood costs morphed into a long-term structural deficit, and the prospect of a balanced budget was pushed ever further into the future.

Floods forced Selinger’s first fateful decision: a reversal of his 2011 election commitment not to raise taxes. He announced in the 2013 budget, with almost no prior warning, an increase in the PST. The stated need was to build infrastructure, especially flood protection, as was strongly emphasized by both Selinger and his minister of infrastructure and transport, Steve Ashton.

In truth, relatively little was ever spent on flood protection. A long and expensive laundry list of potential flood-mitigation projects was announced, but almost none was built with the extra PST revenue. The PST increase simply ended up in general revenue to make a soaring deficit look slightly less bad.

Not all of Selinger’s cabinet was onside with the flood-related decision to increase the PST. But it was another flood-linked issue that appears to have triggered the cabinet revolt in 2014: Ashton’s decision to purchase — untendered — $5 million in Tiger Dams from a prominent supporter, as well as a push by Ashton to fast-track a health-care clinic in The Pas. It is not clear there was any genuine impropriety, but the optics were beyond terrible. Cabinet colleagues were unhappy with this apparently new style of business under then-premier Selinger.

At the time, Ashton was the highest-profile cabinet minister because of the constant stream of flood-related news, not because he held the most senior portfolio. One wonders whether ministerial rivalry contributed to the internecine warfare that erupted within the Selinger government.

Though it was the people around Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin who paid, and are still paying, the heaviest costs, the flood of 2011-12 cost all Manitobans. The cost was both financial and political. Manitobans suffered through a dysfunctional government for the final two years of Selinger’s term.

For obvious reasons, the flood disaster of 2011-12 must not happen again. Here we turn to the expertise of engineers and hydrologists.

Plans have been drafted for new outlets to Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin that, when built, would avert floods similar to those experienced in 2011-12 and 2014. The primary obstacle is not in the construction and engineering, but the politics.

First Nations people living along the shores of Lake St. Martin, Lake Manitoba and the Dauphin River have a long history of ill-treatment from provincial and federal governments. Most notably, they were not consulted when the Fairford Water Control Structure and Portage Diversion were built. Both structures greatly increased flooding on traditional First Nations lands, particularly downstream of the Fairford River that drains Lake Manitoba.

Premier Brian Pallister has placed construction of the Lake Manitoba/Lake St. Martin outlet as a priority for his government. But before that happens, he will need to work hard to repair damaged relations with the affected First Nations. This will serve as an easily measured benchmark of his political skills.

Until an engineered flood solution is complete, all Manitobans and even their government remain at risk.

Pallister will be reminded of this every time the legislature sits. He need only look across the aisle to see where the remaining opposition members are seated (Selinger off to the side), and which familiar faces are now gone (Ashton, Theresa Oswald, Eric Robinson, Greg Dewar, Dave Chomiak, Sharon Blady, Kerri Irvin-Ross, Tom Nevakshonoff etc.).

That is the power of a flood.

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg.

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