CONSIDERING the panel was composed of old political warriors, they were pretty well-behaved.
The Business Council of Manitoba convened a conference Thursday to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Included in the sessions on the past 15 years, and the future of the province, was a unique gathering of first ministers.
In the morning, former Prime Minister Paul Martin and former Quebec Premier Jean Charest offered their take on Manitoba’s place in the global economy. In the afternoon, however, was an unprecedented gathering of four former Manitoba premiers: Ed Schreyer, Howard Pawley, Gary Filmon and (via a video link from Washington) Gary Doer, now Canada’s ambassador to the United States.
For those of us who stalk the activities of politicians, this is pretty meaty stuff. Former premiers, especially those from opposing political parties, rarely gather to discuss current affairs. This was a particularly interesting event because the premiers are so incredibly different from one another.
On this panel, you got the full spectrum of retail political styles: Schreyer’s gruff bluster; Pawley’s methodical, almost mournful tone; Filmon’s simple elegance and efficiency; and Doer’s folksy charm. There was, for the most part, a quiet respect among the four premiers.
Filmon and Pawley were definitely the feistiest. The two premiers scrapped over whether the NDP government Pawley led up until 1988 left power with a deficit or a surplus. It’s a very sore point with the NDP, who claim a surplus. It never got close to blows, but there were flashes of anger on both sides.
The panel was, like the conference itself, an exercise in deference. The panels were interesting, but not edgy. Difficult problems were confronted, but without much in the way of courageous solutions. And the big-name visitors imported for the conference — such as Charest and Martin — were flattering to a fault in their analysis of Manitoba.
There were times during this conference when the panelists sounded a lot like a visiting rock star who starts off every concert, no matter where he is, by assuring the audience they are the greatest fans in the world. As Schreyer said in a thinly veiled criticism, the conference was not "a waste of time, per se, but it was time-wasting."
That does not mean there were not important moments. Even with the deferential tone, this was a day when the audience could reflect on Manitoba’s place in the country, the continent and the world without partisan or special interest howling.
Listening to the narrative of the conference, here is a precis of what we know about Manitoba: it is a unique place in Canada, more economically viable than other smaller provinces but lacking the ambition and opportunity of larger provinces. We have our challenges — creating opportunities and education outcomes for aboriginals, lowering the provincial debt, balancing priorities such as health care and infrastructure — but over the past 15 years (the period studied by the Business Council for this event) we’ve performed admirably in most areas.
Perhaps the most important observation was made by Kevin Lynch, a former federal clerk of the Privy Council who is a master of big data. Lynch pointed out the world’s economies are so interconnected now that "when a Cypriot bank has a bad morning, the Toronto Stock Exchange drops 150 points." In that kind of world, Lynch and others noted, Manitoba is little more than a very small cog in a national wheel that is a very minor player in the global economy.
The implication is that much of what happens here is really the result of events that take place elsewhere. It’s comforting to know that we’re doing a pretty good job of not creating our own problems, and disturbing at how little control we have over our own future. That does not mean that any government of any stripe should get a free ride. Only that, to borrow from a famous inspirational saying, we should change the things we can and accept with patience those that we cannot.
This is an interesting time to live in Manitoba. The provincial government is struggling to eliminate its deficit and taking chances, most notably with its increase in provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure. The economy is growing slowly, but is still ahead of the national average. There are business successes, and some social failures. We’re gaining immigrants, but still losing some native born kids.
That mix of good, bad and ugly is a source of great pride for some, and concern for others. Fortunately, it’s the debate between those two camps that makes this such an interesting time.