Tories’ pre-election playbook stinks of desperation Busting open piggy bank seven months before austerity-battered voters go to the polls is tried-and-true political buffoonery
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Hail Marys rarely work in politics. They’re usually a sign of a government in distress, one that has managed its affairs so poorly for so long, that a desperate, 11th-hour play is considered the only option left to avoid electoral defeat. Much like in football, it almost always fails.
No matter how perfect the spiral or how many eligible receivers are stuffed into the end zone, the ball almost always falls hopelessly to the ground (or into the hands of the opponents), as the clock winds down to zero.
That’s what the Stefanson government is facing as it prepares to launch a Hail Mary budget next week. It will be the Tories’ last fiscal blueprint before a scheduled Oct. 3 election.
Even the Hail Mary analogy doesn’t truly reflect the depth of despair the Progressive Conservative party finds itself in. The Tories are so far behind on the score clock, even an 80-yard touchdown pass wouldn’t save them from electoral defeat. The game was largely over in the third quarter, even by Canadian football standards.
Still, the Tories won’t go down without a fight. All indications are that the Stefanson government plans to open the vault for the 2023 budget – scheduled for release March 7 – by boosting spending in all major departments, including health, education and justice. After nearly two terms of fiscal restraint, including spending cuts to front-line services, the Tories plan to shower Manitoba voters with hundreds of millions in new spending.
Election-year largess seldom bears fruit. The reason: it comes off as political bribery. The public sees through it. Not only does it rarely provide government with a bump in the polls, it can backfire. It insults people’s intelligence.
The Tory spending spree began a few weeks ago. Premier Heather Stefanson announced earlier this month that every household with a net income below $175,000 will get a cheque in the mail between $250 and $375, beginning this week. The payouts are touted as “carbon tax relief,” even though the federal government already issues household cheques to offset its “tax on pollution.”
After seven years of freezing operating grants to municipalities (which amounts to a cut in real dollars), Stefanson last week announced $47 million in new funding for local governments, including the City of Winnipeg.
There was more money announced earlier this year for public schools and $60 million for child care last week. The purse strings have been stretched wide open.
That’s expected to continue in next week’s budget. After years of cuts to hospitals and other parts of the health-care system, the Tories will likely announce the single biggest spending increase in health since they took office in 2016 — maybe even in Manitoba history. It will be the Hail Mary of all Hail Marys.
Trouble is, it’s terrible policy. Feast-or-famine spending is the worst way to run government. What most people want, including most Progressive Conservatives, is responsible, steady spending in key areas of government. Few want balanced budgets at any cost, followed by election-year spending sprees designed solely to mine votes. It’s reckless and rarely produces good results.
The harm to the City of Winnipeg, for example, of freezing operating grants since 2016 has been severe. It has compromised the city’s ability to provide Winnipeggers with basic services, such as snow-clearing, transit, policing and fire, while forcing the city to drain its reserves and raise taxes. Lifting the freeze for one year (or even two or three years) won’t fix that.
Few want balanced budgets at any cost, followed by election-year spending sprees designed solely to mine votes. It’s reckless and rarely produces good results.
It’s the same in other areas, including health care, where cuts to regional health authorities have had a devastating impact on hospitals, including the loss of front-line personnel. Staffing shortages, especially in nursing, have forced acute-care facilities to close beds and cancel surgeries. A lack of staffed beds on medical wards is the main reason emergency rooms are backed up and ER wait times are at their highest level in at least a decade.
Jacking up spending on the eve of an election won’t reverse that damage.
Sustainable, predictable spending and responsible balanced budgets are not achieved in one year. Good government occurs over time. Last-minute Hail Marys are signs of deficiency that usually don’t end well for sitting governments.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.