The state of the province, or the state of the government?
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It’s called a “state of the province” speech for a reason. It’s what the audience expects to hear. So, why not give them what they expect?
As many of you know, I was former premier Brian Pallister’s speech writer for more than five years. During that time, I wrote hundreds of speeches for him and various other speakers. I wrote three provincial budget speeches and participated in the writing of a number of throne speeches.
During that entire time, the hardest speech to draft was always the annual state of the province speech. It is normally delivered by the premier before a large audience of Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce members in December. An updated version is then normally delivered to Brandon Chamber of Commerce members in April.
Both events draw large crowds and are money-makers for the two chambers of commerce, but it never made sense to me for the original speech to be given in December, more than halfway way through the province’s fiscal year. And it really didn’t make sense to me for the updated speech to be delivered in Brandon almost five months after the Winnipeg speech.
What really didn’t make sense to me, however, was the tendency for the speech to not actually be a “state of the province” speech. It was my view that the speech should be used in order to give a business audience a detailed picture of the state of the province’s finances and operations, complete with slides and graphics.
I argued that it should show where we were, where we are, and where we are going. I felt that the speech should be delivered as either part of the budget process in March, or after the finalized statements for the prior fiscal year are released at the end of September. And I argued that Winnipeg and Brandon audiences should hear the speech either on the same day, or on consecutive days.
I never won any of those arguments. Instead, the state of the province speech was seen as an opportunity to articulate broad policy themes and objectives of the government. In other words, it would be roughly 20 minutes of spin, originally drafted by the premier in writing on foolscap by the premier, in which decisions of past Manitoba governments would be framed in darkness and the future would be framed in brightness.
The objective was to convince the audience that life was getting better in Manitoba under the current government, and would continue to do so. If any of you have attended any of state of the province speeches over the past six years, you probably recall what I’m talking about.
All of that brings us to the state of the province speech delivered by Premier Heather Stefanson to a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce audience of almost 1,000 attendees two days ago.
With the Kirkfield Park byelection to be held on Tuesday, and the next provincial general election to be held sometime next year (the fixed date is Oct. 3, but the premier could call the election for an earlier date), the speech took on a far more partisan tone than in past years.
Stefanson told the audience: “We’ve been listening to Manitobans, taking action on our priorities and getting things done” and “Our team has been confronted with some of the biggest challenges in Manitoba’s history.”
She claimed that her government has reduced taxes and taken steps to “stabilize Manitoba Hydro,” to “crack down on violent offenders while addressing the root causes of crime” and is working to “ensure violent offenders are not walking on our streets.” In contrast, she warned that an NDP government would bankrupt Manitoba Hydro, “defund police” and “cancel over 13,000 surgeries for ideological reasons.”
She ended the comparison, and the speech, by telling the crowd “there is a choice to be made, folks, and I’m confident that Manitobans will make the right choice next year.” Again, it’s a binary choice. Forward or backward. Light versus darkness. Good versus evil.
If you’re wondering what the point was in having the premier deliver such a partisan speech to 1,000 business leaders, you aren’t alone. With the general election still months away, why engage in so much spin and fear-mongering before a group that is difficult to spin?
The answer is pretty obvious. The intended audience wasn’t the people in the room; it was the many thousands of people who have read the media coverage of the speech since then. In particular, the target audience was the voters in Kirkfield Park, who will decide whether the riding will continue to be represented by a Progressive Conservative MLA.
Stefanson is feeling the pressure of bad poll numbers and an imminent election. We shouldn’t be surprised that she used the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce for such an obvious act of political opportunism.
And we shouldn’t be surprised if she does it again in Brandon in April.
» Twitter: @deverynross