The Manitoba NDP’s cabinet restructuring

When a government says that it needs to make changes to “reset the whole team” it is an indication that things are not going smoothly.

With another set of polls indicating that Greg Selinger’s NDP government continues to be unpopular after it increased the PST that may be a bit of an understatement. While the recent cabinet shuffle to “reset” the government was not full of many surprises it does indicate where the government knows it needs help and may shine some light on where the government feels it needs to go to have a chance of holding onto power.

It is safe to say that Stan Struthers’ tenure as Finance Minister was an abject failure. It seem he will forever be remembered as the guy who increased the PST while also being embroiled in a controversy with the Manitoba Jockey Club, which has accused him of breaking conflict of interest rules. In light of these factors it was no surprise that he’s been moved to Municipal Government where the average Manitoban will now likely see very little of him. His replacement, however says something about the direction of the government.

The new Finance Minister, Jennifer Howard, is the quintessential New Democrat. An outspoken advocate for LGBT rights (herself openly gay), a former Executive Director of a community health centre, she represents an urban riding which is very safe for the NDP. She’s the type of person who can motivate the NDP’s left-wing base, and not the type that many conservatives would associate with the finance portfolio.

Howard was quite clearly the biggest winner of the shuffle. Her promotion contrasts to the 2006 cabinet shuffle by then Premier Doer. A year away from an election that shuffle saw the rise of Theresa Oswald to the Health ministry. Oswald, who represents a crucial south Winnipeg seat, is seen by many as a representative of the moderate NDP, which Doer was so effective at molding into an electoral force.  Howard’s rising star in this government makes one wonder if it is a reflection on this government or an acknowledgement that while the NDP can afford to lose some of the moderate voters it has attracted over the years it can absolutely not stand to alienate its left-wing base.

Before being named Finance Minister, Howard was already one of the more visible faces of the NDP government. Without a doubt she is one of the better communicators in the government caucus, so her promotion to Finance may speak to a lack of options Selinger has at his disposal as well. With the PST and no doubt other economic issues at the forefront of the government’s unpopularity it is clear that effective communication has been sorely lacking from the Finance department. It should not come as a surprise that communication and political skills trump finance credentials.

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It was largely accepted that when Selinger was elected as Doer’s replacement in 2009, it would see a leftward shift for the governing party and a departure from the moderate centrism that has made the NDP palatable to a large cross section of Manitoba, particularly in the battleground areas of Southern Winnipeg. Selinger’s record as Premier has more often than not confirmed that. The NDP must obviously see value in keeping suburban, moderate supporters but some recent government actions do make me wonder if they have begun to take refuge in their traditional left-wing supporters in an effort to rally its most active supporters in the hopes of riding them to an unprecedented fifth term.Putting a left-wing favorite like Jennifer Howard in such a prominent role just may have been a step in that direction.

Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae