Throne speech shows Pallister slowly painting himself into a corner

At this point in the evolution of the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba, the master strategy should be coming into focus.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/11/2018 (1477 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At this point in the evolution of the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba, the master strategy should be coming into focus.

On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister’s government delivered its fourth speech from the throne. With that many outlines of the legislative and fiscal priorities, and about 20 months of governing under the Tories’ collective belts, we should more or less know what this government is all about.

Instead, it remains enigmatic, raising more questions than answers.

THE CANADIAN PRESS Manitoba premier Brian Pallister waits in a hallway before speaking to media after the reading of the throne speech at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, Tuesday, November 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Tuesday’s speech put a strong emphasis on themes that have dominated previous efforts: improved health care, and measures to ease the gridlock in family court from divorce and custody proceedings. There were also new pledges to stop future expansion of gambling activities, lower wait times for some elective surgical procedures, and increased support for the victims of domestic violence and families in crisis.

However, tucked in among the more mundane pledges, lurked a couple of intriguing issues.

According to the speech, Pallister will introduce legislation in this session to force the provincial government — and any future governments — to hold a referendum on any “major” tax increase, a promise first made in the 2016 election.

For the record, there is little chance this premier will hike a major tax while in power — Pallister would rather die a horrible and painful death. However, by trotting out this pledge, the premier confirmed he has no intentions of reviving his carbon tax plan.

Pallister stunned onlookers earlier this year, when he announced he was abandoning a made-in-Manitoba carbon-reduction plan, which would have capped taxes at half of what the federal government is seeking. It was designed specifically to give the province a legal basis on which to fight Ottawa on any future increases to the carbon levy.

The second revelation — if you can call it that after 20 months of austerity — is the Tories will continue their ambitious course to shrink the footprint of government, both to balance the budget and to create the fiscal resources to cut the provincial sales tax.

Balanced-budget laws, and those that tie future tax hikes to referenda, are catnip for hardcore fiscal conservatives.

However, even fiscally conservative governments give themselves wiggle room so they can, in times of crisis, use tax increases to protect the treasury and services — or as part of a plan to cut carbon emissions and improve a province’s energy efficiency.

Will Pallister include such wiggle room in his new law? It will be interesting to see how strict a premier with an aversion to tax hikes can be.

Notwithstanding the premier’s resolve, introducing such a law at this stage in the gestation of the Tory government raises some interesting questions.

It’s consistent with a past election promise, but premiers who are past the midway point in their terms try to, above all else, avoid painting themselves into any sort of corner.

Don’t look now, but an increasingly tight corner is exactly where Pallister finds himself with his decision to abandon the Manitoba carbon tax and then introduce a law that would make it nearly impossible to revive.

The revenue from the $25-per-tonne levy was supposed to fund income tax cuts and the reduction in the PST, among other things. Now, Pallister must find hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to cut those taxes from somewhere else — that somewhere else has to be expenditures on government services.

When he pulled his own plan off the table, Pallister may have been wagering Ottawa would collect the federal tax and remit it to the provincial treasury, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had previously hinted.

If that’s the case, then it was a bad bet. Trudeau decided instead to remit all revenue from a federal carbon tax directly to Manitobans. No windfall for the provincial treasury, and no resources to help Pallister meet his tax pledges.

This is where other parts of the throne speech start to come into focus.

Pallister renewed another 2016 election pledge to build 1,200 new personal care home beds. This time, however, the deadline for opening the new beds has been pushed back a year, to 2025, and communities are being asked to cover much more of the total cost than before.

Delaying such construction is the very definition of penny wise and pound foolish. A lack of personal care home options for the elderly and infirm has led to overcrowding at hospitals, which in turn has increased wait times for emergency medicine and surgical procedures. Moving elderly patients out of hospitals and into such centres is not only more humane, it boosts the cost efficiency of the entire health-care system.

The failure to live up to that promise is but one example of the enigma that is the Pallister fiscal strategy.

As the premier scrambles to find the more than $300 million needed to cut the PST, don’t be surprised if there isn’t a single new personal care home bed online by the time Manitobans go to the polls in 2020.

For voters keeping score at home, the choice being offered by the current government is interesting.

On the one hand, we have a government that has made cutting the PST and reducing the deficit its prime directive. Both are worthy goals, but the consequence of prioritizing those accomplishments above all else is slower, or lower, spending in government services.

It’s impossible to assess the electoral impact of such an awkward fiscal policy. But it will be interesting to see if Manitobans find a one-point cut to the PST is a fair trade for a lack of personal care home beds.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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