How will history remember Greg Selinger?
If the end of his political career is used to answer that question, he will not be remembered fondly.
Once again under pressure from within his own party to step down, Mr. Selinger finally agreed that enough was enough. This past week, he confirmed that his last day as a sitting MLA will be March 7.
That day will mark the end of one of the more volatile case studies in Manitoba politics.
Let there be no doubt: Mr. Selinger governed in difficult times.
He took over the leadership of his party, and of the government of Manitoba, in 2009, creating two major problems. First, he was not former premier Gary Doer, a leader who was much beloved both inside and outside the party. If that weren’t a daunting enough challenge, Mr. Selinger took over the helm of his party and the province just as a deep recession fully and completely settled on the world’s economies, an event that changed forever the fiscal rules for governing.
Economies grew at a much less robust rate. That meant lower growth in revenues. The fact that Manitoba’s economy suffered less than other provincial economies provided little comfort; our relative strength compared with Alberta and Ontario only meant lower federal equalization payments.
There were other short straws to deal with. In 2011, the province suffered the most expensive flood season in its history. When all the bills were counted up after late spring and early summer flooding had receded, it had cost the provincial and federal governments more than $1 billion, putting a strain on Manitoba’s budget the likes of which had not been seen in recent memory. Mr. Selinger presided over a string of deficits, mostly due to general economic conditions. All that red ink has stained his legacy.
Premiers tend to be defined more by the times in which they governed and less by their actual decisions or accomplishments. This was the case for former Premier Gary Filmon, who navigated the province through extremely difficult economic times in the 1990s. Although he brought fiscal stability to Manitoba by the end of his term, and accomplished a great many other positive things, following his defeat in the 1999 election, Mr. Filmon was remembered mostly for the austerity measures he introduced to help eliminate the budget deficit. Such is the unjust fate of political leaders.
If Mr. Selinger only had to contend with an anemic economy, natural disasters and big shoes to fill, he might still have been able to carve a glass-half-full view of his time in office. Lamentably for Mr. Selinger and his allies, he also demonstrated an unusual capacity to court controversy and conflict.
History will show that Mr. Selinger botched the introduction of a one-point increase in the provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure, acting rashly to hike the tax before third-party allies in the business community, and his own party, could make adequate preparations. Given broad, pre-existing support for the idea, a victory turned to defeat.
This failure, along with an increasing willingness to tolerate incompetence and ethically improper behaviour by some of his cabinet ministers, prompted many within the party to call for him to step down before the 2016 election. Mr. Selinger refused, and ultimately was forced to fight for his job against a cabal of senior ministers who publicly called for his resignation. He won that leadership battle, but the party lost any hope it had to compete in the election.
Given that performance, it only made sense that Mr. Selinger would take a week to realize that — following allegations that the government he led had failed to act on complaints of sexual harassment against former cabinet minister Stan Struthers — it was time to go. It was only a week, but in political terms, it was another reminder that Mr. Selinger is as he has always been — a man who could not objectively assess his own place in the political universe.
The job of premier is arguably the most important and difficult job in the province. It’s a position that tends to make intelligent people look simple-minded and the simple-minded look hilariously incompetent.
Manitobans will debate whether Mr. Selinger, an educated and capable man with an otherwise noble career in elected public service, falls into the former category or the latter.
What we know with some certainty is that, after years of doing good as a city councillor and then later as a provincial politician, his political epitaph will include the inescapable conclusion that he did not succeed; not as the leader of his party, nor as the leader of the province.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
Updated on Friday, February 23, 2018 at 8:13 AM CST: Adds photo