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This article was published 15/3/2019 (317 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman just raised the stakes in his ongoing battle with Premier Brian Pallister.
At odds for months now over a capital funding dispute, Bowman used his annual State of the City luncheon address at the RBC Convention Centre on Friday as an opportunity to throw a bit of a scare into Pallister's caucus of Winnipeg MLAs.
Bowman outlined his concern that the province was retroactively changing the terms of capital funding agreements, leaving the city short $40 million for road renewal projects. Following a carefully worded script he has been utilizing for weeks now, the mayor said that while he supported the Pallister government's efforts to eliminate a budget deficit, he reminded the premier not to do that "on the backs" of Winnipeg property taxpayers.
And then, Bowman changed his angle of attack, and spoke not to the premier, but his MLAs.
Adopting the tone and posture of a diplomat, Bowman pleaded with Winnipeg MLAs to protest cuts to provincial funding. He evoked the image of Oliver Twist, noting that on its own, the city has failed to make any impression on the Pallister government by pleading, cap in hand, for more money.
"We need Winnipeg members of the legislative assembly to speak up for Winnipeg and end their silence on the provincial decision to leave Winnipeg residents with a $40-million hole in their roads budget," he said.
"For MLAs in the room who are listening today, it's time to put political party interests second, and the people you serve here in Winnipeg first."
In his pointed comments, Bowman did not make any distinction between Tory, NDP or Liberal MLAs. However, given that the Tories hold 17 of the 31 provincial ridings in Winnipeg, and that the Liberals and NDP have been been outspoken about cutbacks to municipal grants, it's safe to say that Bowman was directing his comments at the Progressive Conservatives MLAs in the Tory caucus.
In the ongoing war between the city and province, Bowman's comments mark a new and important change in context, and a potentially potent reminder that ultimately, voters will have a say about the province's current fiscal policies.
Last fall, Bowman had to seek re-election while at the same time sparring with Pallister over funding. Now, he's not-so-subtly reminding Tory MLAs from Winnipeg that soon, it will be their turn to face voters and explain the decision to deny the city $40 million in road-repair funds.
Pallister will no doubt brush aside Bowman's veiled threat as just the latest in a series of provocations from city hall. After all, the two Brians have been sparring with each other for a couple of years now and despite promises from both men to cease hostilities and take the high road in future discussions and public pronouncements, they just can't seem to help poking each other in the eye when the opportunity arises.
In this opportunity, however, Bowman has the advantage of poking at a particularly sensitive area of the Tory psyche.
Pallister appears to have a lock on re-election in the next election, whenever it comes. The premier has hinted strongly that he wants to go to the polls before the fall of 2020, the date by which provincial law says a general election must be held. Better funded and organized than either the NDP or Liberals, the Tories would have an extensive advantage going into a snap vote.
Unfortunately for a premier with a lack of the ability to delay gratification, the provincial flood forecast has thrown a bit of a wrench into Pallister's plans. There is a strong likelihood that this spring will see significant flooding. Strong enough that Pallister was forced to assure Manitobans that he would not drop the writ of election while the province is facing a potential flood threat.
Still, the situation facing city Tory MLAs is much different from that experienced by their rural cousins. Province-wide, the Tories enjoy what appears to be an insurmountable 20-point lead over the next closest party, the NDP. However, in Winnipeg, it's tighter. Much tighter.
The Tories still lead in Winnipeg, but by just more than the margin of error in the poll. As well, the Liberals, who trail badly province-wide, are quite competitive inside the Perimeter Highway.
All of this means that Bowman's cheeky missive is likely to resonate more with individual Tory MLAs than it does in the premier's office. Collars are getting tight for Winnipeg Tory MLAs, and not just because of reduced infrastructure grants to the city.
There are ongoing concerns about the controversial reorganization of Winnipeg hospitals that will ultimately see two emergency departments closed. School divisions have had their funding virtually frozen, and the province has cut way back on funding for road and highway repairs.
Add to that the fact that Pallister is embroiled in an internal civil war with high-profile party opinion leaders – including titans such as Sandford Riley and Polly Craik – and you have a laundry list of reasons why Winnipeg Tory MLAs might be losing sleep.
It is unclear as of yet whether Bowman will actually wade into a provincial election campaign, whenever that comes, to press his point. However, he and other municipal leaders did make their presence known in the 2016 election with their "Fair Share, Fair Say" campaign on provincial infrastructure funding.
It is certainly well within the realm of possibility that Bowman will take his message and, once again, change the angle of attack. He has made comments aimed directly at Pallister. Now, he is attempting to get his message through to the Winnipeg Tory MLAs.
All that is left is a direct plea to voters to send the Pallister government a message that it can't seem to grasp on its own.
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.