July 18, 2019

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For a tall man, Manitoba's premier offers surprisingly short arm's length

Pallister's decision to get Treasury Board involved in municipal affairs is questionable

Opinion

It's another big, unanticipated can of tough love, opened by a premier who has forged a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later.

This week, Premier Brian Pallister announced unexpectedly he was going to task his own Treasury Board secretariat to do a review of land use approval and inspection now performed by municipalities, Manitoba Hydro and other public bodies that issue permits to builders and developers. Pallister signalled his intention to conduct such a review just a week earlier but promised it would be arm's-length from government.

As is almost always the case when this premier makes important decisions, there were more questions than answers about his ultimate intentions.

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It's another big, unanticipated can of tough love, opened by a premier who has forged a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later.

This week, Premier Brian Pallister announced unexpectedly he was going to task his own Treasury Board secretariat to do a review of land use approval and inspection now performed by municipalities, Manitoba Hydro and other public bodies that issue permits to builders and developers. Pallister signalled his intention to conduct such a review just a week earlier but promised it would be arm's-length from government.

As is almost always the case when this premier makes important decisions, there were more questions than answers about his ultimate intentions.

Chief among them is this: why would a government that has spent $23 million since 2016 on outside consultants to inform its own decision-making suddenly turn this issue over to an internal body that is the very definition of partisan?

The Treasury Board secretariat is a committee of cabinet ministers, supported by senior finance officials, that reviews all of the province's spending, sets broader fiscal policy and serves fully and completely at the pleasure of the first minister. At last word, municipal land use and development is not among its areas of expertise.

Premier Brian Pallister is going to get the provincial Treasury Board secretariat to do a review of land use approval and inspection now performed by municipalities, Manitoba Hydro and other public bodies, so the development strategy for Chinatown and the Exchange District could fall under that umbrella once permit applications start being filed. (CentreVenture)</p>

Premier Brian Pallister is going to get the provincial Treasury Board secretariat to do a review of land use approval and inspection now performed by municipalities, Manitoba Hydro and other public bodies, so the development strategy for Chinatown and the Exchange District could fall under that umbrella once permit applications start being filed. (CentreVenture)

But that is not the only concern here. Pallister initially promised the review would be independent, which many interpreted as a pledge to involve an outside body or consultant. With his decision to turn this over to the Treasury Board, the premier is applying a distinctly political lens to an issue that deserves a politically impartial assessment.

With the decision to involve the Treasury Board, we are left wondering where this is going, because there were virtually no details about what exactly the province expects from this review and there was no advance consultation with Winnipeg city council or any other municipality.

Is this a purely academic exercise to see how Winnipeg and other municipalities stack up against other communities? Will the Treasury Board use its research to help advise municipalities on better practices? Or, is this the beginning of a process that will end with the province dictating to municipalities how they will manage land use and development?

It's important to remember that all municipalities are creations of provincial legislation. As such, provincial governments have the legal power to make decisions on behalf of these local governments. Typically, that is a power that most premiers wield very cautiously, given that municipal officials are also democratically elected.

It's not clear that Pallister is as cautious on this issue.

In an email statement received Wednesday, a government spokesman indicated the government is looking for a solution it can deliver to municipalities, whether they want it or not. "Since the legal authority for the regulation of planning and development in the province is created in provincial legislation, the province has a responsibility to bring forward changes to improve performance and outcomes in these areas."

The official response also mentioned how the review would be "independent," which is fundamentally untrue, and how it was the government's intention to "move forward collaboratively" on any changes. It's a bit rich, given the fact that this brainstorm was unleashed on municipalities without warning or advance discussion.

Premier Brian Pallister initially promised the review would be independent, but with the Treasury Board involved, there is a political lens on the issue. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Premier Brian Pallister initially promised the review would be independent, but with the Treasury Board involved, there is a political lens on the issue. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Fair-minded citizens should also be somewhat concerned over the use of the word "responsibility."

As noted, the province has wide-ranging legal authority over municipalities, but it's broader "responsibility" is to make sure it does not unnecessarily or unjustly ride roughshod over municipal officials. It is not the intent of the provincial legislation to allow Pallister or any other premier to govern municipalities.

It should be noted that Pallister is hardly the first premier to use his legal superiority to bully municipalities.

Former NDP premier Gary Doer dished out some tough love for local governments when, in 2008, his government declared a provincewide moratorium on hog barn expansion or new construction. The Progressive Conservatives, under then-leader Hugh McFadyen, fought tooth and nail against the ban, describing it as an unaccountable end-run around municipal independence and the Clean Environment Commission process.

'Why would a government that has spent $23 million since 2016 on outside consultants to inform its own decision-making suddenly turn this issue over to an internal body that is the very definition of partisan?'

In a stroke of profound irony, in 2017 Pallister delivered his own workaround to effectively reverse Doer's moratorium when he introduced legislation allowing hog barn operators to avoid having to seek municipal approval for modest expansions or replacement. Some rural municipalities have objected to the introduction of new rules that effectively diminish the influence residents have, through their local governments, to determine how much pig manure they want in their communities.

To do this right, Pallister will have to achieve a very delicate balance. He certainly can force his preferences on Manitoba municipalities but it's really not clear that he should.

In the final analysis, this is not an either-or equation. Pallister does not need to prescribe a solution for municipalities, and he does not need to stand idly by while municipalities drag developers into an endless pit of red tape. He can, at least in theory, work with municipalities to come up with a better land use and development regime that cuts down on delays but does not trample on the authority of local government.

But that's going to require an appetite for collaboration and a desire for consensus, neither of which seems to exist in great quantity in this premier's world.

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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