By Dorothy Dobbie
September will be a political month and Manitobans will be faced with an important choice, perhaps one of the most critical political choices in many years. Will you give Premier Heather Stefanson a chance to continue the work to rebuild the economy that she has barely had time to begin, or will you settle for Wab Kinew who is suddenly singing her song but has had few ideas of his own except to sign the Leap manifesto which pledges to shut down all development in the North?
Let’s take a look at the two. You know that my bias is clearly with Heather Stefanson, but I will try to be fair to Wab. He is a Leader, and he deserves our respect.
Wab Kinew background
Contrary to what you may think, Mr. Kinew has a very good education and a degree in economics. He attended the Collegiate, a private school attached to the University of Winnipeg, and went on to the University of Manitoba for his degree in economics. Although he did not complete a Masters, he started one in Indigenous governance.
His mother, Kathi Avery Kinew, is a doctor. His father, Tobasonakwut Kinew, who passed away in 2012, was an internationally famous leader and academic with more than a dozen prestigious awards to his credit.
Wab did not pursue a career in his chosen field, preferring to become an entertainer both as a hip hop artist and later as a television broadcaster and writing a best-selling book. He has a wife and child and two sons from a former marriage. He is 42.
His difficult early years and his brushes with the law are well known, but he has abandoned that youthful behaviour and has been focusing on leading the NDP for the past six years. He represents Fort Rouge after defeating the Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari.
Heather Stefanson background
Heather grew up as the youngest in a large family of four sisters and one brother. Her father, J. Hugh McDonald, came from an early grain merchant family, but he spent his life building a real estate portfolio. He ran unsuccessfully for the Progressive Conservatives in 1977, when Heather was just 7. It made a lasting impression upon her. His wife, Diane McDonald, raised her five children and later had the honor to preside over local Citizenship Courts under Brian Mulroney.
Heather, too, went to a private school at St. John’s Ravenscourt, and then on to the University of Western Ontario, where she studied political science. She met Jason when she worked in Ottawa for Brian Mulroney, coming back to Manitoba to take up a position in Minister Charlie Mayer’s office. After spending five years working for Wellington West, getting married to Jason Stefanson in 1998, and starting a family (she has a son and daughter in their early 20s), she got elected in 2000 replacing Gary Filmon in Tuxedo. She is 53.
Heather has been elected six times and has served in both Opposition and Government where she was minister for Health, Families, and Justice and was Deputy Premier.
Backgrounds not that different, but . . .
Despite all the NDP accusations of privilege when applied to Heather Stefanson, the backgrounds of the two are not that different. They both experienced some degree of privilege, but both went to work at building a career despite this.
Where they really differ is in approach. Heather has a warm, sunny disposition. Wab is more austere and, some say, angry. She revels in one-to-one contact with people to whom she listens and engages naturally. He is legendary for escaping social functions after a grand entrance (always a little late but with an entourage) as soon as the attention moves on to something else.
He is, however, a polished speaker thanks to his public career in broadcasting and he has a practiced charm. She wastes little time on rhetoric, wanting to get right to the point, which must frustrate her campaign people as her speeches are brief and devoid of self-praise or chest thumping. But what she says hits home.
Approach to governance
It is hard to dispassionately describe Wab Kinew’s likely approach to governance because he has shown very little to reveal how he would manage the top job. However, body language tells a lot, and he frequently uses his swivel chair to turn his back on the room during discussions in the House when others are speaking.
All announcements are made by him. It is hard to see what kind of talent he might have on his benches because we seldom get to hear them. His House Leader, Nahanni Fontaine, and her friend, Bernadette Smith, dominate the NDP benches in the Legislature occasionally sharing the stage with health critic Uzoma Asagwara. The rest seem to have trouble getting their voices heard.
Heather Stefanson, on the other hand, is the corporate director. She delegates responsibility but demands accountability. She is content to let her ministers do their jobs and is happy to see them shine. Indeed, she expects them to shine.
She is eager to listen and is probably the easiest premier to get an audience with that the province has had for many, many years. As she said in her latest ad, she likes to say Yes, even though there are times when she has to say No for the good of the province.
Once again, you will be surprised to learn that the two are not that far apart on platform announcements. While the Tories will roll out their plans over the next month, we can draw fairly accurate conclusions about where they are going from the many releases this spring and summer, beginning with the budget.
NDP platform so far
For its part, the NDP has been setting their election table throughout August and it is a remarkable mirror of Progressive Conservative thinking. Despite the fact that many of the issues the NDP are espousing were issues just recently voted against in the House by Wab Kinew, he has reversed himself and come back with a menu that looks remarkably like it was crafted by the PCs.
He has promised a $700 tax credit, a freeze on Hydro rates and that he will get “tough on crime”, end homelessness (no details about how) and recruit more nurses and docs, all things already in progress by the PC government. He will spend $500 million on adding home care and personal care workers along with the docs and nurses, he says. Oh, and $10 a day care which, it seems to me, has been in place for about a year now under the PCs.
He did come up with a few of his own ideas: rent control, free birth control, universal school nutrition program, subsidized home security cameras and doorbells. He swears he won’t raise the PST.
His tough-on-crime approach is interesting given that he seemed dead against it when the PCs announced it: stricter bail provisions, unexplained-wealth investigations, drug traffic crackdown – sound familiar? Oh, and more mental health workers to keep crime in check.
He also said he would “grow the economy”, but no details. Maybe that is to come. It certainly won’t contain provisions for the opening of mining since he signed the Leaf manifesto pledging to halt mineral extraction. I am not sure how he plans to address the horrible conditions of the northern communities who have no economy now.
Tory record and platform priorities
Premier Stefanson has committed almost $3 billion to spending for health and social programs, most of which the Leader of the Opposition and his party have voted against over the past few months. This includes everything from hearing aids for seniors to insulin pumps for diabetics. The NDP voted against a $1,000 a year income tax break for low-income earners by raising the amount you can earn before paying Manitoba income tax. They voted against measures to deal with violent crime, to expand, renovate and build more schools and to invest in hospitals both in Winnipeg and rural areas.
Heather has set aside $126 million for a strategy to address homelessness (which Wab also voted against) and she also committed nearly $10 million to add more addiction treatment spaces. (Wab voted against this, too). She has already begun the recruitment process for more nurses and doctors and has opened up more health care training spaces, something the NDP limited for two decades.
Heather is also solidly committed to building the economy by opening the mining industry in the North to deal with demands for minerals to build an electric world. She supports the notion of helping First nations build an economy that will give them independence. The government has already set in motion a plan to bring highways up to international standards while they have approved the announcement about NeeStaNan, the northern spur line off the Churchill Northern Gateway railway that will allow the shipment of heavier goods to tidewater, opening up billions of dollars of new trade opportunities for Manitoba and the rest of the prairies, while stabilizing the fortunes of the Churchill line.
Best of all, this is predicated on the ownership of the line by the Indigenous communities who have Treaty Land Entitlements on the land it will traverse, helping to reduce energy costs and create opportunities for economic development among First Nations.
Judge for yourself: two different people, although not that different after all, but one has a track record, experience and a team that knows what they are doing. As Heather said, “Wab is smart, but he has no experience and no team with experience to back him up.”
The other is vision. Heather’s vision is for a prosperous Manitoba where there is enough for everyone, where we are no longer the “have-not” province, where we can have the best social services because we have a vibrant economy that can support a compassionate, inclusive community.
Wab’s vision is . . .?