Monday, March 02, 2015

NDP leadership in Manitoba: the final stretch

In the late 1970s I was a current affairs documentary producer with the local CBC supper hour program in Winnipeg. On a few occasions I heard from a long-haired, bearded social worker from north Winnipeg with story suggestions centred on issues affecting low income residents in that part of the city. The result was that I ended up producing a handful of documentaries focused on issues such as the need for more affordable housing, and, in one particular case, a local problem with adolescent glue sniffing in one of Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods. The social worker always stayed in the background of these stories, never agreeing to be interviewed. I moved away from the city and lost touch, but encountered him again in 2008 at a conference on Manitoba politics and government, beard gone, hair shorter, in jacket and tie. By 2008 Greg Selinger was Manitoba's Minister of Finance and a year later would become Premier.

He is now fighting for his political life and may cease to be premier after the NDP leadership convention vote on March 8. However, Greg Selinger never forgot the poor of north end Winnipeg. If you are poor, aged or infirm, Manitoba is one of the better places to live in North America, mainly as a consequence of 30 some years of social democratic government in the province since 1969 (I worked for an NDP candidate in that election). One of the first large initiatives was legislated immediately after the 1969 provincial election and implemented before year's end: "On November 1, 1969, premiums for medical care insurance were reduced by 88%, and the revenue loss was replaced with an income tax increase as promised in the election". Others have been small but over the years help for those on low income has been a continuing theme. Greg Selinger's government has been faithful to the NDP's core constituency, which is one reason he continues to be supported by anti-poverty activists and other party progressives.
However, he may well lose. His government's popularity took a big hit from the poorly managed introduction of a sales tax increase in 2013 (a topic I discussed in an earlier post). All governments of whatever stripe don't get to continue in office forever; they gradually accumulate grievances against them. Tax increases, however justified, can seem particularly burdensome in an era where inequality means the less well off typically see their wages and incomes stagnate.  
The internal party rebellion against Selinger has been a futile effort to stave off a defeat that is all but inevitable. This was a serious error in political judgment, made in particular by Theresa Oswald and her allies. Had she and the other party rebels waited, the likely defeat would have cleared the way for her to replace Selinger and rebuild the party in opposition. Voters are likely to hold Theresa Oswald, if she becomes leader, to account for the tax increase despite her promise repeated yesterday of an offsetting tax credit for those on low income. She would represent a shift in age and gender but the long years in office of the NDP will inevitably take their toll. As it stands Oswald and Selinger may well lose to Steve Ashton. Defeated by Selinger in 2009 Ashton, who has engaged in some ethically dubious campaign tactics, almost certainly would have the weakest popular appeal of the alternatives on the ballot. 
This divisive leadership contest is a low point for the Manitoba NDP and has been compared to the party's defeat in the 1988 Manitoba election. The leadership divisions have clearly diminished the NDP's odds of winning the next election, scheduled for April 19, 2016.

However, a recent analysis by Nelson Wiseman concludes that, whatever the immediate future holds, in the long run the Manitoba NDP has every reason to expect a strong political future:
A generation of new voters in the next election, most likely to occur next year, will have known only an NDP government in their politically conscious lives. To them, the "natural" political order will be an NDP government. This does not mean the NDP will prevail in the next election. The odds it will do so are remarkably long. However, the NDP long ago left its position on the margins of provincial politics. It is now deeply embedded in the provincial political culture, worthy of being known as Manitoba's natural governing party for the foreseeable future.
All indications are that the leadership contest is a close three way race. I expect Ashton will finish either first or second with one of Selinger or Oswald being eliminated in third place. Were it not for the internal feud one would expect the supporters of Selinger/Oswald to go to the other. However, unity does not prevail in the Manitoba NDP. Internal jealousies and bitterness about the race may contribute to producing the least desirable outcome.