Greg Selinger is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief today. Steve Ashton’s announcement that he, too, will seek the premiership following Theresa Oswald’s decision to do the same has given Selinger the wiggle room he needs to salvage a victory from the wreckage that is his leadership contest. With both Ashton and Oswald now vying for disaffected New Democrat supporters, Selinger’s threshold for a win has dropped dramatically.
Theresa Oswald alone presented a much more credible threat to Selinger’s position: after all, Oswald along with four of her senior cabinet colleagues resigned this fall in protest of his continued premiership. Blaming Selinger for hiking the PST, for jeopardizing yet another electoral victory, for his overall intransigence, Oswald was to be the lightning rod for all those disenchanted with the premier’s reign. Nevermind the cabal’s own hypocrisy—having voted for that PST hike when given the chance—or their utter disregard for the principle of cabinet solidarity that underpins our very system of government; they finally said what so many within the NDP and, indeed, Manitobans across the province had already concluded: Greg Selinger is a loser.
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Ashton, by contrast, remained silent until the rules had been drawn up, the lay of the land clear, his ducks no doubt in a row. Having lost to Selinger in the last leadership race in 2009, like so many aspirants to the top political jobs, he has undoubtedly kept his team assembled, kept hope alive. And so Steve Ashton rides again, northern Manitoba’s own Don Quixote.
Even if by some miracle Ashton were to eke out a win at the leadership contest in March, of the three candidates he is least likely to retain “Fortress Winnipeg” in the next election. Ashton simply has no traction in southern Manitoba or within the city; moreover, as yet another gray-haired white guy he does not represent the kind of radical change the NDP requires to convince Manitobans they deserve another mandate. Theresa Oswald, on the other hand, is the New Democrats’ best shot. It is a weak one to be sure, but as an articulate woman she could attempt to cast herself in the same class as Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and BC’s Christy Clark; a compelling counterpoint to the Progressive Conservatives’ Brian Pallister.
While even Oswald is unlikely to keep the NDP in government come the next election, having her at the helm of the beleaguered party would make for a much more spirited election: instead of it being about Selinger being terrible, or Ashton desperately trying to answer Winnipeggers’ repeated questions of “Steve Who?”, the election might actually be about the NDP’s sixteen-year track record, on health care in particular. After all, before being shuffled to “Jobs and the Economy” in 2013, Oswald had held the health portfolio longer than any other provincial politician in Canada. For nearly a decade, Theresa Oswald was Manitoba’s Minister of Health.
For her current leadership campaign, Oswald has attempted to portray hers as one about vision and principle; it ought to be about her tenure at the helm of our public health system. Is she prepared to run on that record? Fight an election with that record?
It would be nice to see her try. After all, Manitobans need a full and honest debate about our public health system. Aside from the countless “critical incidents” documented by the WRHA, there are the wait times (some of the worst in the country), the costs (growing seemingly exponentially), the inconsistencies in care (between urban and rural communities, even between Winnipeg-area hospitals), and the shameful lack of accountability by the WRHA (blaming “the system” for the deaths of people like Brian Sinclair).
To many, our public health care system is broken. How do we fix it when the province is drowning in debt, already taxing residents at some of the highest levels in the country, the economy merely sputtering? How do we ensure it will be able to cope with the coming seismic demographic shift marked by that glut of Baby Boomers hurtling towards their final, often costliest years? How many other services are we prepared to sacrifice to sustain our public health care system as revenues decrease and costs keep rising, with more patients in care and less people working?
The next provincial election when it comes ought to answer these questions. Oswald would be best placed to provide the NDP’s response—however tired, flawed, and deserving of rejection it might be.