Manitoba·Analysis

2017 may be year the ground shakes in Manitoba politics

It was a year of political change in Manitoba that hasn't really been felt yet. That may change in 2017.

Earthquakes are rare on the Prairies, but politics can make for some seismic shifts

Perhaps Manitoba isn't quite at an earthquake moment in politics, but 2016 saw plates shift and cracks form in places not accustomed to such movement. 2:27

Seismic: Of enormous proportions or having highly significant consequences.

Perhaps Manitoba isn't quite at an earthquake moment in politics, but 2016 saw plates shift and cracks form in places not accustomed to such movement.

Perhaps the real earth-moving events are yet to come.

Seismic measuring systems may not capture Manitoba political movements in 2016-17. (The Associated Press)

Premier Brian Pallister led the Progressive Conservatives out of a long political exile on the Opposition benches and into government in April. Nearly 17 years of New Democratic Party rule ended, but not with a dramatic crash of tectonic plates. It was more like the last bits of air being squeezed out of a camping mattress.

NDP struggle to get out of a huge crack

A failed palace coup in the sunset days of former Premier Greg Selinger's government did much of the squeezing. The caucus was divided, key players jumped ship and the party limped into the April election, carrying the burdens of years in government: floods, economic downturns and the promise of Manitoba's oil — hydro power — failing to deliver.

Powerhouse NDP managers such as Michael Balagus (chief of staff to Selinger and former premier and political master Gary Doer), Paul Vogt (clerk of the executive council) and Eugene Kostyra (former cabinet minister and adviser) were gone.

As the cracks widened, the electorate sensed it was time to jump to the other side of the gap. 
Interim Opposition leader Flor Marcelino admits she is holding a place for the next leader of the NDP. (CBC News)

Eight months in Opposition have only served to show how deep and wide the chasm really is inside the NDP. The placeholder Opposition leader, Flor Marcelino, openly admits her skills are not suited to the cut and thrust of session politics.

Much-admired Point Douglas MLA Kevin Chief has left for other, presumably greener pastures and to devote time to his family. Maples MLA Mohinder Saran must ask the caucus for permission to return following an investigation into alleged verbal sexual harassment of a staff member.

This spring the NDP will set the policy framework for their leadership convention next fall. The party could use the time to heal, but it's also possible the long knives will come out as hopefuls circle each other for a chance to replace Chief in one of the few safe seats in the province.

In the big picture of the leadership race, serious candidates must start to show their interest sooner than later. The roster might include MLAs Wab Kinew and Nahanni Fontaine, federal NDP MP Niki Ashton (with her dad, former MLA Steve Ashton, lurking in the corridors of the legislature after his defeat in the last election) or perhaps an outlier from Winnipeg's city council or a labour leader with political ambitions.

It took former NDP premier Gary Doer nearly a decade of recruiting bright minds, building an inside-the-perimeter group of formidable female candidates and acquiring a new wardrobe of better-cut suits to bring the NDP back to power after Progressive Conservative Gary Filmon's decade as premier. The bar is now set.

PCs' next moves may shake Manitoba

At first it was hard to see just where Premier Brian Pallister and the PC government were setting their own bar.

A jumble of rhetoric mimicking his election platform came in the first few months, along with a pablum budget and heads-down approach to policy.

But now Pallister is gripping the stick much more tightly — and poking those who would go into the corners with him.

The leaders of Manitoba's public sector unions have been jabbed repeatedly. Public announcements of Pallister's plans for wages and bargaining have left labour leaders wondering if they left their phones off the hook. 

Pallister isn't even bothering to look up their numbers. In his year-end interview with CBC News he said it's the hearts and minds of union membership he's interested in reaching — not the leadership. 

"Everybody in this province knows the strong and historic links between public sector union leaders and the NDP. Everyone knows it. It's not a secret," Pallister said.

But the government won't be negotiating contracts for thousands of government employees with the people who work in the laundry at the Health Sciences Centre. It will be done with their leaders. 

These are people who know government, know negotiating and were elected as well.
First ministers, including Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister (right), met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month about climate change. Pallister's gambit to hold out on signing an agreement in exchange for better health-care transfers now looks like a bad bet. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers also got some jabs from Pallister recently. By refusing to go in (along with Saskatchewan) on the federal climate change accord, the Manitoba premier certainly put the province on Ottawa's radar.

A wager to hold back on a climate change signature in exchange for better health-care transfers now looks like a bad bet. The solidarity among provinces to hold out for a richer deal started crumbling on the east coast as provinces started cutting side deals.

Manitoba will want a lot from Ottawa in 2017: a share of federal infrastructure money, back in on the climate change deal and millions in unpaid disaster funds from previous flood events.

Oh, and there may be a flood to come. 

Pallister loves to talk in parables and anecdotes — "If two people agree, one of them isn't thinking," he has said several times.

If Manitoba floods this spring it will be interesting to see who's agreeing with whom when the prime minister flies in for the ceremonial sandbag. That's if Trudeau shows up at all.

Speaking of Liberals ... 

If there was a surprise in the legislature this year, it might be the Manitoba Liberals.

The Liberals' Judy Klassen brings a quiet voice of conscience to the Legislature. (CBC News)

Interim leader Judy Klassen's quiet, dignified manner in describing some of the agony her northern constituents are facing cuts through the bombast of question period like a razor. Her tiny band of three MLAs ask policy-driven questions and they offer solutions and suggestions to some of the more taxing social and health problems out there.

This is no reflection on whether the alternatives they offer are workable, but the manner in which they are proffered is in stark contrast to the sneering and jeering the two larger parties engage in.

So 2017 will likely be a watershed year for Manitoba. The impact of the PCs' agenda will probably come into the light. The NDP will be forced to look in the mirror to find the face it hopes will bring people back to the fold. And the Liberals ... well, the Liberals are a card it's hard to see the value of yet.

It's a good bet seismic isn't a bad choice of words to describe what's coming.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.