Greg Selinger's refusal to 'fall on sword' leaves NDP future in voters' hands
For Manitobans, the word “dynasty” is a term they will only encounter when they crack open a history book or watch an episode of Game of Thrones.
Political dynasties are rare in this province’s modern history, as Manitobans have alternated at regular intervals between choosing the New Democratic Party and the Progressive Conservatives as their rulers. But for the past 15 years, Manitobans have created a mini-dynasty on Broadway, electing the NDP to government four times in a row.
With private whispers and grumblings about Premier Greg Selinger’s leadership finally given a public voice this week, Manitobans are witnessing what happens when dynasties falter. And it could be every bit as dramatic and as chaotic as what happened to the members of House Targeryen on Game of Thrones.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Selinger stood in the legislature and announced that he will remain as leader. This came after some of his most senior cabinet ministers and party officials publicly acknowledged that the public is not happy with the premier’s performance.
In the same breath, those who spoke up Monday and Tuesday — Justice Minister Andrew Swan, Jobs and the Economy Minister Theresa Oswald, Health Minister Erin Selby, Local Government Minister Stan Struthers, Finance Minister Jennifer Howard and former labour minister Becky Barrett — suggested that Selinger should consider his future and come to a decision that is in the best interests of the government and the province.
Urged to make 'right decision'
Although no one came right out and said that Selinger should step down, the deliberately non-committal and highly-qualified way in which Selinger was urged to make the “right decision” echoed the manner in which ancient Roman emperors who fell into disfavour would be urged to “fall on their sword” and die an honourable death.
But Selinger did no such thing.
With nearly half of his caucus members at his side, he came forward and said he intends to lead the NDP in the next provincial election. In doing so, he has forced those plotting his demise to look him in the eye and — if they are still so inclined — plunge their blades into his front, rather than planting them in his back. It is a gutsy move, even if it may turn out to be politically lethal.
What is remarkable about this situation is that no Manitoba premier — and no NDP premier in the country — has been ousted by his own party midway through a term where he leads a majority government.
In 1988, Howard Pawley resigned after losing a confidence vote in the legislature when one of his own backbenchers, Jim Walding, voted against his government’s budget. But that is the only precedent for an NDP premier losing power in Manitoba.
With the NDP holding 35 of 57 seats in the current Legislature, it would take at least seven of his MLAs to vote against government legislation to bring the leader and the party down, forcing an election.
As the second leader of the current NDP dynasty (following Gary Doer), Selinger has struggled to make the transition from the earnest and cerebral social work professor-turned-finance minister into the premier who connects with Manitobans.
Whereas Doer combined a keen political nose with an innate ability to communicate complex issues in a clear and charming manner, Selinger has not been able to convey his positions in the same way. Although his skills as a retail politician have improved, he has been unable to convince Manitobans that it was necessary to increase the PST.
This, as well as the hubris that has piled up after 15 years of NDP government, is reflected in Probe Research quarterly polls that show the NDP languishing behind the Progressive Conservatives and likely to lose the next election.
The silver lining for the NDP is that it currently leads the PCs in Winnipeg (38 per cent to 35 per cent). It pulled itself up from a low ebb of 29 per cent support among Winnipeggers in December 2013 to the current 38, seen in the most recent poll from September.
However, the NDP’s lead over the PCs is within the statistical margin of error, with the resurgent Liberals sitting at 21 per cent. Unless the dynamics dramatically change, this high level of Liberal support would allow the PCs to win a number of NDP-held seats in suburban Winnipeg with relatively-low proportions of the popular vote.
The fear of this outcome is what is driving some in the NDP to advocate for a new leader now, arguing that a fresh face is just what is needed to improve the party’s “brand” among Manitobans.
This is a risky proposition, but one that Canada’s few other political dynasties — Alberta’s 45-year-old Progressive Conservative government — has managed to pull it off three times now in the past decade.
Alberta’s PC government, unlike the House of Targeryen, the Ming emperors and so many dynasties, has managed to reign despite long odds. It remains to be seen whether Manitoba’s NDP will meet the same fate these other political dynasties face when torn apart by internal strife, or whether it will somehow find a way to endure.
Right now, that answer depends on the members of the NDP caucus. But it will ultimately be decided when Manitobans go to the polls in 12 to 18 months.
Curtis Brown is the vice president of Probe Research Inc., a Winnipeg-based public opinion research firm. He is also a former political journalist and the co-editor of Manitoba Politics and Government: Issues, Institutions and Traditions.