A Perfect Calm

Allen Mills, Commentary, Role of Government, Worth A Look

PROVINCIAL politics have disappeared in Manitoba. We have reached a condition of complete consensus and benign agreement. There are no scandals (well, except for the Crocus Fund issue) and Premier Gary Doer is the most popular politician in the nation. The state of Manitoba is serene and uncontested. It is not that the state has withered away; but certainly party politics have.

A perfect storm requires the perfect conjunction of many factors. The same can be said of a condition of perfect calm.

In the years since Premier Doer came to power in 1999 the Canadian economy has performed very well by almost every indicator. There has been no recession. As well, Doer has performed a brilliant job in positioning the NDP in the centre of the political spectrum. It has been a long march towards the heaven of political legitimacy and respectability for the party. Ed Schreyer made the breakthrough in 1969 and convinced Manitobans that the NDP was social democratic and not socialist. Howard Pawley built on this acceptance after 1981 though it almost sank in the dreadful squalls of Walding’s defection in 1988 on top of a spike in Autopac rates and Eugene Kostyra’s high-tax budget of 1987.

Doer took over in 1988 in the midst of all this and ahead of him was a long apprenticeship in leadership. He learned well. By 1995 he had seen off the Liberals as the alternative to the Filmon PC’s and in 1999 he won power. Basically he had established in the public’s mind that he was a safe pair of hands on the economy. The NDP under him would not threaten business nor increase taxes; nor would it run deficits. Doer won partly by embracing Gary Filmon’s initiatives, especially the balanced budget legislation. But like all good politicians he has been lucky. Balancing budgets is relatively easy in a time of ever growing revenues and buoyant federal transfers and equalization payments.

Doer’s six years in power reveal him as a shrewd, centrist politician, ducking controversy if need be, back-tracking when criticism does occur and, as a political manager, a captain with absolute control over his crew. He oversees and countermands ministers whom he thinks require overseeing and he exerts control in areas where he thinks he knows best.

All roads of control and discipline and policy running through party, caucus, and cabinet lead to the Premier’s Office.

If Canadians worry that the federal prime minister has become a presidential-type figure, we should recognize that Manitoba is now governed by President Doer.

Undergirding this mix of cautious politics and managerial centralization has been a highly coordinated media control-strategy; and also a calculated effort to keep provincial politics out of the news by actually reducing the sittings of the Legislature to an absolute minimum.

From 1999 to 2003, the first Doer administration, the Legislature met on only 26 per cent of its possible working days (Monday to Friday). Since his re-election in 2003, that figure has dropped to 23 per cent. The cockpit of provincial politics and the centre of democratic accountability sits empty and untroubled by controversy for over three-quarters of the available time. This is scandalous and is intentional on the government’s part. The provincial government is now an $8-billion operation and it is the Legislature that is supposed to ensure that public monies are well spent. Hide away and avoid examination is part of the government’s strategy.

The conditions of a perfect political calm are not at an end, however. The dynamic of federal-provincial relations in Manitoba usually favours the incumbent provincial premier against what is usually seen as those suspicious knaves in Ottawa. Also, the provincial government of what is increasingly the city-state of Winnipeg has many fingers in many pies, especially in the educational and cultural community and even in private economic organizations.

In a city-state, relations are always close and personal. It is hard to lobby the government for a special favour for a symphony orchestra and then in another capacity criticize the government’s politics in general. You can but don’t expect a favour next time. There is a lot of self-censorship in the province among the elites about the provincial government.

But it gets better for the provincial government. The media in Manitoba are also complicit in this silence on the land. CKY TV is not interested in provincial politics at all. CBC TV has now only a half-hour of local supper-time programming and news — Global TV the same — and has lost its investigative capacity and instincts. Global did not have them, ever. The print media could cover provincial politics in greater depth and more extensively. Journalists in the province are largely young and inexperienced. Noam Chomsky, in his famous theory of how governments use the media to deliver propaganda, claims that this sometimes occurs through the media’s dependance on official sources. There is amazement in hearing, periodically, local media essentially broadcasting, verbatim and unedited, the press releases and the political spin of the provincial government.

Finally, there is the weakness of the Official Opposition. The provincial PCs under Stuart Murray have failed to lay a finger on the NDP government. In the one case of an issue with political traction, the Crocus Fund scandal, Murray has admitted that he caved in to pressures from sympathetic Conservative supporters in the financial community to lay off.

Equally, and unforgivably, he has been actively cooperative in Doer’s strategy of keeping the legislature OUT of session. The brief season of the house in session is the best chance for the opposition to get its message noticed. A politician who cannot recognize his most fundamental self-interest is doomed to fail.

Some NDPers reason that Doer has run such a perfect ship that not only is the crew willingly obedient and compliant but that they are actually behaving themselves down below deck. The Crocus Fund issue may suggest that there is some slippage in standards, but the government’s defence is that this is a unique event in an otherwise impeccable record. The point is that in the circumstances of an unimaginative media and a crippled official opposition, we cannot know for sure whether this is true.

Premier Doer has built a political edifice of impressive proportions. But the problem in all centralized regimes is that everything depends on the one-man leader. If he gets it wrong, then….well, the reader can fill in the consequences.

Doer has got many things right. Yet he is cautious and conservative to a fault. He has built up his political capital but he refuses to venture any of it on anything that is not a safe and a gilt-edged security.

The overall problems confronting Manitoba remain unresolved. A small-sized community with, compared to the Canadian average, a declining share of population and of private investment and, as well, the exodus of many of its best educated citizens. It also has comparatively high taxes and low average wealth and a large and growing dependance on Ottawa’s financial transfers.

Fully 34 per cent of the provincial government’s revenues now come from the federal government. The province’s economic and fiscal policy seems to be to leave business alone (probably a good thing) and, for itself, to build another hydro dam. Is this enough? And what of the other important issues that don’t register on Premier Doer’s radar screen? His government has complete jurisdictional responsibility for cities and municipalities but prefers to let the federal government displace it in solving the fiscal crisis facing cities and municipalities. On regional planning and the development of the Capital Region there is complete inertia. Yet these impact on so many matters to do with land use, housing, water quality in the Lake Winnipeg basin not to mention the financial viability of cities and municipalities. Inner city poverty and crime have not been successfully engaged by this government.

At the federal level and in most Canadian provinces there is concern about the “democratic deficit,” of inequitable electoral systems, low participation in voting, the executive’s dominance of the legislature, and first ministers acting as presidents. On the democratic deficit there is not a peep from this government. In two crucial areas — education and health — much money is spent but there is little radical innovation or experimentation.

Altogether major areas of public policy go unaddressed. Why? Because they represent the need for initiative and risk-taking. Or it is that they are beyond the policy capacity of the provincial civil service? Our risk-aversive premier refuses to join the game here.

Paradoxically he risks going down in history as a politician who knew sublimely in very favourable times the mechanics of power but who never quite bent them towards consistently constructive ends.