Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 14/4/2016 (1408 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the backroom of NDP incumbent Deanne Crothers’ campaign office in St. James Village, a Winnipeg freelance crew working for public-affairs channel CPAC is adjusting the light on party leader Greg Selinger.
The man who’s been premier of Manitoba for the past 6 1/2 years is characteristically calm as he prepares to be asked, yet again, about having to fight to keep his job twice over the past 14 months.
First, there was the NDP leadership contest, sparked by a cabinet rebellion and concluded by the thinnest of margins. Now, it’s a Manitoba general election where his New Democrats trail badly in the polls to the Progressive Conservatives and face defeat for the first time since 1999.
A Crothers campaign worker pushes open the creaky door to the back of the Portage Avenue storefront and pokes her head into the room.
"There’s nothing wrong with Greg Selinger," she assures a trio of assembled journalists before the CPAC interview begins.
That isn’t the official campaign slogan for the Manitoba’s New Democrats in 2016, but it may as well be the subtext. Facing an electorate in the mood for change, Selinger has spent the past few months trying to convince voters his party "can be the change that people want."
And faced with the question of whether his fight to survive the leadership battle was worth a mass exodus of veteran NDP MLAs, the mass departure of experienced NDP staffers and campaign workers and his long-serving party’s potential loss of power, Selinger’s messaging is equally serpentine.
In short, he argues his fight to remain the leader of the NDP resulted in change within the NDP.
"The reality is we’re committed to giving people opportunities to serve. We want more diversity in doing that, and we’ve been able to move forward on that with renewal in the party while having some of our experienced people stay with us," says the 65-year-old politician, speaking at a campaign stop in the Murray Industrial Park earlier this month.
"So when you get a good mix of people, that makes for a stronger team. I don’t use sports analogies that often, but just take a look at the teams that do well: they’re the ones that find ways to have a good mix of veterans, people in mid-career and newcomers all coming up at the same time.
"Has it been an elegant process? Far from it. But the reality is every party has to renew itself as they go along, and at the same time keep their vision of looking after the priorities of Manitobans."
For Selinger, the priorities are social spending, which he describes as taking care of the most vulnerable Manitobans. Under his watch, spending on health care, social services and job training has soared. In the first half of the province’s current fiscal year, cost overruns in these three areas alone erased a $103-million windfall that arrived in the form of unexpected revenue.
The growing chasm between provincial revenues and expenditures does not faze the former finance minister, who has a PhD from the London School of Economics.
"We pay for services by growing the economy and having people working, who then make a contribution back to the economy in terms of their productivity, in terms of the taxes they pay," he says, even after being confronted with the fact tax revenues are not keeping pace and growing deficits are forcing the province to spend more money on interest payments to service debt, rather than social programs.
"We saw very significant pressures in health care and family services, for very obvious reasons. Manitobans are living longer. There’s chronic diseases out there in the community. Some of those are caused by living conditions and poverty. The economic growth agenda allows us to lift people out of poverty."
Selinger says he’s concerned Brian Pallister’s Tories don’t care as much about northern Manitobans, indigenous communities and children living in care. But there are elements within the NDP who say Selinger doesn’t believe anyone — within or outside his party — could possibly care as much as he does.
It is this conceit, they claim, that motivated the man to cling to power in the face of a cabinet rebellion.
Selinger rejects this thesis.
"I wouldn’t say for a second I’m the only guy that cares about that. I think everybody who’s a candidate, everybody in our party cares about that. We know the communities care about that, because they’re talking about this all the time," he says. "Do I think the world will come to an end if somebody else is the leader of the New Democratic Party? Absolutely not. I think there are excellent people out there. I know there were excellent people in the past. I know there are good people coming up in the party right now, and I think some of the newcomers that are coming into the party have good opportunities in the future."
For now, however, Selinger is focused on fighting on behalf of the remaining veteran NDP incumbents, including former enemies. In 2013, he tossed Riel MLA Christine Melnick from the NDP caucus after she said she was made the scapegoat in a scandal over instructing public servants to attend a political event.
Melnick was invited back to caucus in 2014 at the height of the cabinet rebellion. Two Sundays ago, Selinger ventured into her campaign headquarters in a St. Vital commercial building to deliver a speech to her volunteers, stressing the importance of her re-election.
"It’s fundamentally important we show people the real differences in the policies put forward by our party," he says, stressing Melnick’s struggle on behalf of human rights. "Christine, keep it up. Let’s get you elected."
During the final days of the campaign, Selinger has focused less on stressing policy differences and more on painting out his primary rival, Pallister, as a bogeyman. He called the PC leader a homophobe and attempted to use his affluence as a wedge issue.
In doing so, he evokes memories of the final days of the 1993 federal election, when Kim Campbell’s long-serving Progressive Conservative government went negative on Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. The results for the PCs, in power for nine years at the time, were disastrous.
Manitoba’s NDP has been in power for nearly 17 years, but Selinger says he won’t speculate about the outcome of the election April 19.
He also expresses no regrets for the internal turmoil that has hampered his own party.
"Every politician picks their time and place, when they want to run or when they want to move on and do other things," he says.
He is referring to his departed colleagues, not himself.
Hometown: Born in Regina but moved to Winnipeg at a young age.
Education: Bachelor of social work from the University of Manitoba, MPA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., PhD from the London School of Economics.
NDP leader: Since 2009, following the resignation of Gary Doer and a leadership contest with Steve Ashton.
Political experience: City councillor for St. Boniface from 1989 to 1992. Finished second to Susan Thompson in Winnipeg’s mayoral race in 1992. MLA for St. Boniface since 1999.