Sound, fury of political theatre… signifying nothing
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It was shaping up to be a big news day.
A morning release March 8 announced, with some fanfare, the Progressive Conservative government was introducing a bill to amend the Financial Administration Act — a piece of foundational law that sets out rules and procedures for the management of fiscal matters.
The Manitoba government was even offering a technical briefing with officials from the finance department. (Such briefings typically signal big, complex legislative changes that translate into big, complex news stories.)
Facing a record budget deficit, and burdened with ongoing fiscal challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and a looming potential spring flood, the imagination of reporters was running wild.
Alas, instead of bold legislative strategy, Manitobans got a woeful piece of political theatre absent of any real relevance or impact for government or its citizens.
In short, the bill would cap the total amounts of borrowing either the government proper or Crown corporation Manitoba Hydro can undertake.
According to Finance Minister Cameron Friesen, by posting a cap, all Manitobans can see government is committed to staying within its means and focused on important things like balancing the books.
“The idea of setting a limit, we believe, is important,” Friesen said.
Except, that’s not really what this bill does.
There are caps: $44.4 billion for government, and $29.3 billion for Hydro. There are also tons of loopholes to allow future governments to change those numbers — and absolutely no penalties for exceeding them without following the processes outlined in the bill.
The government of the day can, for example, change the caps annually, when it tables budget implementation legislation.
So, it’s really only a suggested target, completely vulnerable to the whims of the governing party. Pretty much the situation we have now.
There is also no added accountability, as Friesen boldly claimed.
Government and Hydro debt numbers are published and updated frequently throughout the year. Debt rating agencies publish quarterly updates and issue credit ratings that tell us whether the debt is a concern for lenders. Government ministers are frequently called upon to answer questions from opposition critics and journalists about the debt and deficit.
The new bill is pointless, ineffectual and unnecessary.
So, why would Premier Heather Stefanson devote any amount of her legislative bandwidth to this bit of nonsense?
As it stares down a date with voters in 2023, the Tory government is desperate to remind voters of any and all fiscal crimes it believes were committed by the former NDP government.
The NDP did leave the treasury in a mess when it relinquished power in 2016. The budget was in deficit and despite elevated levels of spending, outcomes in health care and education were disappointing. And then there was Hydro.
Former PC premier Brian Pallister labelled the NDP decision to build the Bipole III transmission line and Keeyask generating station as the political “scandal of the century.” The two projects combined were billions of dollars over initial budgets, adding considerably to the debt at the Crown corporation.
Pallister fussed and fumed about how the NDP had mortgaged the future of the province. He even spent $2.5 million to have former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall author a report that concluded Hydro mismanaged the two projects.
However, given it was already well-known Hydro had spent $3.7 billion more than originally budgeted for the transmission line and dam; Wall’s report failed to earn much in the way of political capital for the PCs.
Still, when you’re free falling in opinion polls, you have to cling to whatever political narrative you can. It appears the Stefanson government is clinging to a desperate bid to convince voters her party is more fiscally prudent than the NDP.
It’s an odd strategy for a number of reasons.
First, the Tories have not been all that prudent.
Although Pallister famously slowed or froze spending in most core services, and refused to negotiate new wage agreements with civil servants, he also squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on tax cuts Manitoba clearly could not afford.
From a one-point reduction in the provincial sales tax, to a 25 per cent cut in education property taxes, the Tories demonstrated there is more than one way to spend your way into a record deficit.
Second, at this stage in the pre-election period, re-establishing Stefanson’s bona fides as leader of the party of prudence is hardly what the premier needs.
The Tories are sagging in the polls because Pallister gutted core services like health care and education, and because his COVID-19 pandemic management strategy was a complete and utter hot mess. In that context, Stefanson is unlikely to find any salvation by emphasizing her government’s unwillingness to spend money.
If Stefanson wanted to use the bill to amend the Financial Administration Act as a dog whistle to core supporters, a simple news release would have been sufficient.
A news conference and technical briefing was overkill — a gratuitous strategy that confirmed this is one desperate party.
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.