Honesty not the policy for Tories

Government's release of long-awaited report leaves much to be desired


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Truth is not dead at the Manitoba Legislature. But it is gravely ill.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/10/2017 (1827 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Truth is not dead at the Manitoba Legislature. But it is gravely ill.

The latest assault on the general health and well-being of truthfulness was delivered by Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen, who was made available to reporters Tuesday to explain why his government was finally releasing the KPMG audit of government finances that was completed nine months ago.

Undertaking so-called “value for money” audits and releasing the results for public discussion were core promises made by the Progressive Conservatives in the 2016 election. However, after winning a majority, Premier Brian Pallister decided the audits would not be released. After months of being beaten over the head with allegations of a broken promise, the premier finally relented.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Finance Minister Cameron Friesen heads back into his office after meeting with reporters regarding the release of the KPMG Fiscal Performance Review report Tuesday.

The two reports released Tuesday certainly fall into the category of “Be careful what you wish for.” Together, they represent nearly 900 pages of mind-numbing analysis and recommendations.

The timing is certainly part of the story. The audits were released online at 1 p.m. on a day when Pallister was out of the province at the First Ministers’ Conference; Friesen was made available to speak to reporters at 2 p.m.

In the news game, this is a thinly veiled strategy to discourage thoughtful reporting. The early-afternoon release guaranteed that journalists would not have enough time to digest their entirety before deadline. Making the minister available within an hour of the release guaranteed that Friesen wouldn’t have to face too many awkward questions.

And yet, even with all the efforts to discourage reporters from looking too closely into the audits, the exchange between the finance minister and reporters was decidedly awkward.

Most of the questions dealt with the KPMG recommendation — already accepted by government — for an eight per cent cut in the provincial civil service. Friesen couldn’t put a hard number to it initially, but later released a statement that said it added up to 1,200 lost positions, most of which would be eliminated through attrition.

When asked why this was necessary, Friesen launched into a deliberate and ruthless abuse of the data.

Friesen said cuts were necessary because Manitoba employs 20 per cent more civil servants as a percentage of total employment than the national average. With numbers like that, it makes you wonder why Friesen is cutting only 1,200 jobs. That is, however, until you examine the real numbers.

First, national averages are meaningless in a country with four very large provinces and six very small provinces. The four largest provinces, not surprisingly, have much lower overall public-sector employment numbers as a percentage of total employment: B.C. (18), Ontario (18), Alberta (18) and Quebec (21.4). The huge populations in those provinces, and their overheated economies, tend to mitigate things such as per-capita public-sector employment.

To be statistically fair, you would have to compare Manitoba with the other five small provinces. And when you do that, Manitoba (25.7) is right in the middle of the pack, one point below Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland (26.6), almost equal with Nova Scotia (25.3), one point higher than Saskatchewan (24.5) and just two points higher than New Brunswick (23.6).

It could be argued that all the smaller provinces rely too heavily on public-sector employment. But to suggest that the data shows Manitoba as an outlier is a horrible misrepresentation.

The second big problem is that these numbers are from Statistics Canada, and refer to all public-sector employment in Manitoba, including municipal and federal government employees. Thus, the finance minister is using a count of all apples to guide his decision to cut oranges. He either doesn’t know he’s mixing his data points, or he thinks we’re too dim to figure it out.

In fact, Manitoba has not increased the number of provincial civil servants in more than a decade. Given that total public-sector employment in Manitoba has risen slightly over that period — as it has in all provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador — the provincial government’s share of all public-sector employees has fallen.

Friesen’s muddled math is entirely consistent with this government’s addiction to manipulating numbers. From overstating deficit figures to misrepresenting the growth in middle-management positions within government, Friesen and Pallister have yet to meet a data point that couldn’t be twisted, fractured or otherwise bent out of shape.

The flap over the KPMG audits is not likely to dissipate any time soon. Yet another KPMG study on health-care spending, which should have been released by now, remains out of public view. Friesen said it will remain under wraps, at least for now, because releasing it now would confuse people about the changes unfolding in health care.

The finance minister said at least twice that it would be “unhelpful” to dump another enormous fiscal study on the clearly overwhelmed citizens of Manitoba.

“I think it would add to the confusion” that exists now over changes to the health care system, which includes a significant reorganization of Winnipeg hospitals and closure of some emergency rooms, he said. “I don’t think it would provide any comfort.”

The anger and contempt over the performance of the former NDP government — which, in the end, was no stranger to dishonesty — is still burning brightly for the voters who punted it from office and embraced Pallister and the Tories. So perhaps it’s too much to expect those voters to be outraged yet at the frequent, profound and patent dishonesty practised by the current government.

But didn’t voters in 2016 embrace a leader and a party that promised to be better than the NDP? Friesen’s performance on the KPMG audits suggests that the current government doesn’t feel the pressing need to be better than its predecessors. And that should worry all voters.


Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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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