While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, it seems you can read a throne speech that way. The cover of the speech Tuesday was pretty much the same as the covers have been for very many years. Except that this year it was purple and white instead of black and white. This "new" face on the same-old presaged what was to be found inside -- a plethora of "new" directions for old programs, "more" of the same programs, "expanded" programs, "strengthened" programs and "updated" programs. It reannounced and buffed practically everything the government has announced in recent times, some of it dating back a decade.
It was -- it is -- the throne speech of a government that is either confident of its record of caution, or a government that is running on empty and doesn't know it.
That there was so much of so little seems to indicate the government after 11 years is stale, that its best-before date has expired. Among its big innovations are to buy -- or perhaps lease -- a helicopter ambulance, to put medical personnel on a bus to check the health status of people in isolated communities, to introduce an ill-defined youth-mentoring program sometime after the election next fall. These are not in themselves bad things, but they are things that a bureaucracy would accomplish without direction from government -- which infers that, having been there so long, the difference between being bureaucrats and being leaders is no longer clear.
Much of the rest is more of the same -- more daycare spaces, more police officers, more nutrient targets to save Lake Winnipeg, more consumer protection.
There is a promise to legislate a ceiling for health administration costs at the current levels, which Manitobans might think the government would do anyway. There is to be a new projection of how much the province will spend on roads over the next five years that will then be packaged as a "five-year plan," just like the last projection.
There was much talk about how Manitoba has led the nation on many economic fronts in recent years, but there was no talk of the fact that provincial spending soared accordingly and largely on the basis of vastly increased transfer payments, the levels of which are now in doubt. There was a reminder that in the salad days provincial budgets were balanced, but there was no talk of the current $500-million deficit or that the "plan" is to run deficits for five consecutive years while debt expands because we no longer make debt reduction payments.
But during the 12 minutes that Premier Greg Selinger listed non-stop the "new" old stuff at a news conference prior to the reading of the speech in the legislature by Lt.-Gov. Phillip Lee, he said two things of considerable and unquestionable substance. He said that the population of Manitoba is growing and that the unemployment rate is the lowest in Canada. Time for a change is always a good idea in democracies. Governments do tend to stay on beyond their best-before dates, they do tend to see the routine expansion of services as somehow remarkable and they almost always mistake inertia for initiative. The throne speech Tuesday contained clear signs that this government suffers all those routine failings. But the speech also was a reminder that the population is growing and that more of it is working than in any other province. It doesn't get more black and white than that, even if it appears under a purple and white cover.