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48 hours of deception

Premier engages in political pandering as questions arise on deficit estimate

Opinion

It's a level of dishonesty rarely seen in Manitoba politics.

On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister unveiled a $45-million plan to provide every Manitoba senior with a $200 "economic recovery credit," regardless of income level. When asked what specific economic hardship is being experienced by seniors, he could not identify one, describing it instead as "a deserved benefit."

Province giving seniors $200 for pandemic expenses; others need help too, critics say

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Premier Brian Pallister said an estimated 225,000 Manitobans will receive the Seniors Economic Recovery Credit this month.						</p>
Premier Brian Pallister said an estimated 225,000 Manitobans will receive the Seniors Economic Recovery Credit this month.

Posted: 05/05/2020 11:54 AM

A $200 cheque will soon be in the mail to all Manitoba seniors — whether they need it or not — to deal with additional costs associated with the pandemic.

"Seniors built this province," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday at a teleconference announcing the $45-million Seniors Economic Recovery Credit going to an estimated 225,000 Manitobans age 65 and older, regardless of income.

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What Pallister knows, and what he wouldn't tell, is while seniors are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, they are among the least affected by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many do not rely on a job for income, seniors are much less affected by layoffs. There has been no interruption in CPP, OAS or other government benefits. For those at the lower levels of the income ladder, supports such as pharmacare and rent assist are still very much in effect.

That is not to say all seniors are economically sound; like any strata of society, there are haves and have-nots. But, statistically speaking, older Manitobans are among the wealthiest people in the province.

Pallister denied politics was behind the new benefit — but providing a cheque to every senior without any sort of income test is the worst kind of political pandering at the worst possible time.

The premier knows full well he's indulging in a shameless political gesture, because he has condemned similar schemes introduced by other governments.

Shortly after winning the 2016 election, Pallister slashed the controversial NDP seniors property tax credit because it was paid out to all seniors regardless of income. In announcing his decision, he called it "an irresponsible promise by a previous government that was totally desperate to buy votes."

Ironically, you can use the exact same language to describe the new benefit: it's an irresponsible and desperate bid to win over seniors during the pandemic.

What makes Pallister's handout even more maddening: it was unveiled just one day after his Tory government announced a $860-million emergency cut to spending, $193 million in savings through layoffs and furloughs of civil servants. It could end up being the largest single workforce reduction in Manitoba public-sector history.

At a news conference Monday, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the spending and job cuts were necessary because the province was facing $2 billion more in health-care expenses and $3 billion less in revenue, creating the potential for a historic $5-billion budget deficit.

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

At a news conference Monday, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the spending and job cuts were necessary because the province was facing $2 billion more in health-care expenses and $3 billion less in revenue, creating the potential for a historic $5-billion budget deficit.

At a news conference Monday, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the spending and job cuts were necessary because the province was facing $2 billion more in health-care expenses and $3 billion less in revenue, creating the potential for a historic $5-billion budget deficit.

It was a big shift from the picture painted just a week earlier, when Pallister warned public-sector unions and arm's-length entities to prepare for cuts of up to 30 per cent. When he unveiled his plan for spending and staff cuts, Fielding had the gall to call it "a good news story" because it was less than the initial target.

Clearly, the 30 per cent figure was a bluff designed to spook unions, school divisions, Crown corporations and post-secondary schools into accepting smaller cuts with no protest.

The 48 hours of deceit authored by Pallister and Fielding would be an outrage if it were not part of a longer–term and well–documented problem this government has with the truth.

For non-poker players, a bluff is a calculated lie. While that may play well at the card table, it's a pretty dishonourable way to treat civil servants.

There is also mounting evidence the government's claims about the deficit and health-care costs are also a bluff — this time to justify a campaign of intensified austerity.

Pallister and Fielding have repeatedly claimed the bill for personal protective equipment (masks, gowns, gloves, sanitizer) could well be in excess of $1 billion. However, the Pallister government has refused to say how much has actually been spent, what the province got, and how much it is still obligated to purchase.

"This payment will provide seniors with some of the additional support they need during this very, very challenging time," Premier Brian Pallister said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"This payment will provide seniors with some of the additional support they need during this very, very challenging time," Premier Brian Pallister said.

The Tories have also refused to provide data on nursing vacancies and overtime, and doctors billings. Doctors Manitoba estimates the province could be saving $30 million to $50 million a month in physician fees from cancelled medical procedures and a precipitous drop in visits to private clinics.

On top of circumstantial evidence, an April 27 analysis by RBC suggests Manitoba is drastically overstating its fiscal predicament.

Based on budgets, fiscal statements and announced pandemic responses, the bank has forecasted deficits for each province: Ontario, Quebec and Alberta will suffer the largest deficits, but Manitoba is expected to come out with one of the smallest fiscal setbacks.

To put Fielding's claims about $5 billion into perspective, RBC is forecasting a deficit of that size in British Columbia, which has a much larger population and significantly more cases of COVID-19.

RBC forecasts Manitoba will have a $1.5-billion deficit due to the pandemic.

The 48 hours of deceit authored by Pallister and Fielding would be an outrage if it were not part of a longer-term and well-documented problem this government has with the truth.

There's always a chance the virus will make a comeback and ravage Manitoba. But fear of the unknown is not justification for exaggerating the situation and manipulating numbers to make it look worse off than it really is.

Manitobans not only want the truth, they can handle it.

The only question is whether the premier has any interest in offering it.

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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History

Updated on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at 8:58 PM CDT: Updates headline

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