Finance minister takes reduced role in pre-budget public sessions
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Manitoba’s pre-budget consultations are getting back on track with a “whole-of-government approach,” rather than being led by the finance minister, Tory officials say.
The first public session scheduled for Jan. 30 in Winnipeg was postponed, following the news Jan. 27 that Progressive Conservative finance minister Cameron Friesen was stepping aside to run federally. On Monday, veteran cabinet member Cliff Cullen was sworn in to take his place.
On Tuesday, a pre-budget consultation was held in Steinbach — without the new finance minister.
Instead, Steinbach MLA and Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen led the session, with Borderland MLA Josh Guenter assisting him.
Just a day earlier, Guenter had been appointed legislative assistant to the finance minister to play an “integral role” in the 2023-24 pre-budget consultations, the PC government said in a news release.
A spokesperson for the new finance minister said Cullen had a prior commitment and couldn’t attend the session in Steinbach, adding the member for Spruce Woods (adjacent to Brandon) will be at the Brandon consultation slated for Feb. 6.
Meantime, the finance minister won’t be in attendance at all the pre-budget sessions as the PCs take a “whole-of-government approach,” with local MLAs, finance officials and Guenter taking part, the spokesperson said.
Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt will be in charge of the Feb. 9 pre-budget session in Thompson.
A new date for the postponed Jan. 30 Winnipeg event will be confirmed in the coming days, the spokesperson said. It was not clear if the finance minister will be in attendance.
In addition to taking over the high-stakes finance portfolio, Cullen — who had previously announced he is retiring this fall — assumed other responsibilities, including chairing the provincial and territorial finance ministers group and the tax competitiveness working group.
The “optics” of Cullen not attending the pre-budget sessions with the public are not good, Manitoba political expert Paul Thomas said Wednesday.
“Even though the new minister could be informed by finance department staff about what transpired, the symbolism of his absence reinforces an emerging theme in the media that the central institutions of government are not working efficiently and effectively because of departures and turnover in key roles,” said the University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus.
“As a senior experienced minister who is retiring, Mr.Cullen was presumably chosen to limit the risks of mistakes in the budgetary process. A secondary reason might have been that he would be free of personal re-election work to devote the time needed to direct and participate in the budgetary process,” Thomas said.
“The government needs to be ‘showing the flag’ in all forums where public understanding and support can potentially be earned.”
The NDP finance critic, who attended the Steinbach session Tuesday, said it’s the first time in the three years he’s attended pre-budget consultations where the finance minister was not there to address taxes and spending.
“It was really unfortunate that the minister wasn’t there because people didn’t get to question the person who’s going to ultimately make some of these decisions,” Fort Garry MLA Mark Wasyliw said.
“I think it reflects just how much chaos is going on right now in the PC party. Normally at this time of year, they’d be done all the budget consultations — not just starting.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.