Supporters of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party need to make a quick decision on where they would like to head over the next two years. The current path means a continued leadership endorsement for the least popular premier in the country, a dubious title he took on after Newfoundland’s Kathy Dunderdale resigned, and a man who has led the party to its current 26% support according to Probe Research’s latest poll. Or the party can begin a process of renewal by ditching its leader, Greg Selinger, and picking a new one, who has not been tainted by tax increases, disregard for legislative process, and been embroiled in public spats with caucus members.
In summer I mused about Selinger resigning as an opportunity for the NDP to breathe new life into the party. It didn’t seem likely at the time and he still does have a couple of years to hope for a rebound, but since summer things have been catastrophic for Selinger and his government. The situation with Riel MLA Christine Melnick over the use of bureaucrats to invite immigrant service agencies to protest actions by the federal government has been fascinating to watch. The attempts by all to dodge accountability, the different stories told by Melnick and the premier’s office, the initial blame of it all being put on diabetes, of all things. The entire situation should have Manitobans questioning the competence of the people running the province. Under better, stronger leadership the issue would likely have never seen the light of day or at least been taken care of swiftly, not dragged out for months culminating with a member of the legislature calling out her own leader then being dumped from caucus. These types of things don’t happen in a party that is riding high in the polls with a popular leader. Christine Melnick clearly had no issues with going public in her criticisms of the Premier. It is also telling that she still considers herself a committed member of the NDP and wishes to run for reelection under their banner.
At first glance, the NDP AGM held within days of the Melnick dustup appeared to be explosive for the party. As it happened, it came at a perfect time as Selinger was able to meet with his party faithful and address the issue head on. The party was able to make the event a love-in and let everyone know how happy they are under Premier Greg. It also let Selinger’s team turn the page as they were able to focus media attention on their new attack ads targeting PC leader Brian Pallister. The ads that accuse Pallister of “running with scissors” are exactly what you’d expect. For years the NDP has used the line that Gary Filmon’s PC government fired 1,000 nurses. Anyone who worked in the Filmon government could tell you that was not true, but the line persisted. During the final years of the Filmon government it lost the public’s trust due to a myriad of issues, such as the Interlake voting scandal, the sale of MTS, and restructuring attempts in health care in an effort to save costs. The accusations the NDP levelled at the PC Party became believable and the public ate them up. False numbers were also much easier to accept when they were spouted by grinning Gary Doer, the premier whose political legacy Greg Selinger will never be able to live up to.
Now 15 years after the PC government was voted out of office, Greg Selinger’s NDP has its own public trust issues. It seems more and more likely that relying on fear mongering just won’t cut it with the public. After a very long stay in the penalty box voters seem more likely than ever to give the PC Party a shot at government. The NDP can continue to level all sorts of accusations at others but if the public doesn’t trust them it will all be for naught.
Fairly or not, Selinger has become the face of an inept, lying government. There is no guarantee that his removal will bring success to the NDP in 2016, but every day he remains in office we are another day closer to seeing Premier Pallister. With two years to rebuild, a new leader could turn things around or at the very least use the 2016 election as a springboard and work to make Pallister a one term premier. Or the party can continue to stand behind Selinger and hope it can knock the opposition down to its level, or maybe just pray that Pallister will make enough blunders on his own to turn off potential supporters. I guess it could work, but if I truly believe in the ideals of the New Democratic Party and want the party to hold onto power that is not something I would be too confident about.
Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae