Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer is trying to break up a protracted territorial battle between Manitoba Public Insurance and the Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba over online service delivery, though critics say government involvement will likely favour brokers over taxpayers.
Mayer issued a written directive to MPI Wednesday afternoon requesting it start a formal conciliation process with IBAM with the goal of "reaching one or more agreements... to address the development and introduction of online services relating to motor vehicle licensing and insurance in Manitoba."
"Both sides have opinions on how (online services) should come to be. They both want the same outcome. It’s how they find that path forward to that outcome," Mayer told the Free Press Thursday.
"I have asked for them to come together to find a resolution.... It's been eight months and I have not seen (and) we as government have not seen enough progress on this file. And so therefore we've issued this directive to get them to the table sooner."
Mayer acknowledged the brokers are an independent organization that is not subject to provincial direction.
Association chief executive officer Grant Wainikka — who was on vacation and unavailable for an interview — wrote by email that brokers are always willing to have discussions with MPI, but noted their board will have to decide whether they want to undertake a formal conciliation process.
He noted IBAM has some areas of common ground with MPI, but takes a very different approach in that brokers want to be central to online transformation.
The Free Press has previously reported on MPI's desire to move some insurance and licence sales online, bypassing the need for brokers to administer the services to customers in person. IBAM argues it should still be involved, helping with the online transactions.
"MPI has been less than forthcoming with information and has still not provided a road map to IBAM or brokers. We have not been provided with any specifics and we learn of MPI's intended direction and far-reaching business cases through media reporting, anonymous sources, and hearsay," Wainikka wrote in his email.
"Ultimately though, we know what MPI is proposing — at least through media reports — is extremely risky for consumers and taxpayers and enables a $1.3 billion government-run monopoly to compete with and overrun small businesses."
MPI board chair Michael Sullivan told the Free Press Thursday that he had "no comment" on Wainikka's assertions, but welcomed the government's conciliation push.
"I'm quite encouraged, actually, to have any modality put in place whatsoever to assist in us moving forward with discussions between IBAM and MPI, quite honestly," Sullivan said, describing their conversations as still in the "beginning stages."
"We have met in the past and we'll continue to meet with IBAM with the assistance of a conciliator, obviously."
Mayer's directive says the recommendations from the conciliation process will be non-binding. So it's unclear whether the exercise will prove successful.
"I’m not going to predetermine the outcome," the minister said. "I expect both parties to take this directive seriously and get to the table and negotiate what's fair for both parties and do the job that we need for Manitobans."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said government has given brokers the upper hand by including in the directive that MPI can’t institute any online services during the conciliation process, unless agreed upon by both parties.
"So effectively (IBAM) have a veto," Kinew said. "So, if you have a negotiation between two parties and one party can always walk away and know that the other party can't move on without them, then effectively that party can just set whatever terms they want and they know that they'll just be able to wait out MPI.
"Typically in a negotiation, each side knows that they have to compromise…. What (Premier Brian) Pallister has done in this directive is he's said that MPI cannot walk away. Thereby there's no leverage for MPI in these negotiations."
Sullivan disagreed, noting both groups will work collaboratively and MPI wouldn't try to unilaterally impose new services without input from IBAM.
"I don’t think (the directive) ties our hands and I don’t think it ties (IBAM's) hands either. We’re going to try to get this working," he said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont noted the directive doesn't spell out that the end goal ought to financially benefit Manitobans — though it does make reference to Manitoba’s commitment to "the stability and health of small business."
"MPI is supposed to be run for the benefit of Manitobans... especially in keeping rates affordable," Lamont said. "That is not mentioned anywhere because what is happening is they're forcing MPI to negotiate."
At an unrelated announcement Thursday, Pallister took questions about why the province stepped in.
"Other provinces have, some time ago — it varies — but have arrived at improved availability through various means of offering services from your home computer. Manitoba under the NDP didn't make any progress on this at all. It's time to make progress on it," the premier said.
"So in recent weeks... I have reports that there's been better discussion happening, but we want to accelerate that process."
Mayer's directive says both parties must agree to a conciliator by next Friday or she will appoint one. The minister said she would provide a list of suitable candidates.
MPI was also directed to foot the bill for the conciliator, though Mayer said if IBAM wants to pitch in, that can be part of negotiations.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.