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Opinion

Pallister Tories give deficit-hawk stereotype new life

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/6/2017 (1144 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Of all the things the Progressive Conservative government should be doing to wrestle a chronic budget deficit into submission, this clearly wasn’t one of them.

Last Friday, the Free Press reported the Tories had frozen applications to the Child Care Inclusion program, a $12.5-million initiative that provides money to hire aides for more than 1,000 special needs children in preschool care. 

The compelling stories of two families -- including Rebecca Chambers and her son Henry -- and the minister’s rather callous comments about the decision to deny the two children support, exploded like a hand grenade in the offices of Tory political staff at the Manitoba legislature. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

The compelling stories of two families -- including Rebecca Chambers and her son Henry -- and the minister’s rather callous comments about the decision to deny the two children support, exploded like a hand grenade in the offices of Tory political staff at the Manitoba legislature. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Free Press profiled two children affected by the freeze: a two-year-old with Down syndrome and a four-year-old diagnosed with autism. Both families were initially told they had been denied funding while the department reviews the program to ensure, in the words of Families Minister Scott Fielding, it was reaching "the children most in need."

Fielding indicated his department was looking for ways that families could share aides, or where the total amount of support could be dialed back based on the "degree of need."

The compelling stories of these two families, and the minister’s rather callous comments about the decision to deny the two children support, exploded like a hand grenade in the offices of Tory political staff at the Manitoba legislature.

Unable to spot the political peril in the original decision, Tory staffers leapt into action with new-found urgency; by Sunday, the two families profiled by the Free Press had been contacted by provincial officials and told they had been approved for funding. 

By Monday, Fielding said he was reversing his original position, and that all pending funding applications would be approved. He said it was important "to take a breath" when making decisions like this so that he could "listen to people." 

Notwithstanding Fielding’s decision to reverse course, confusion over the exact details of the story continues. On Tuesday, Fielding claimed there was never a freeze on new applications, but could not explain why the families and the child-care centres involved believed there was a freeze. Or why he did not dispute the notion of the freeze last week in his prepared statement, or on Monday, when he faced reporters.

What we’re left with is a government that got caught making an unpopular decision, reversed its position and then retroactively claimed that it never did the thing that got them into trouble in the first place.

Add it all up and you have the latest example of a government that is chronically bad at both saying what it means and living up to what it says. It has been thus for some time.

The origin of Fielding’s grief can be fairly connected to the most prominent example of his government’s inability to walk the walk: the widening gap between the acute austerity agenda it is pursuing now and the kinder and gentler approach to fiscal management enunciated by Premier Brian Pallister in the April 2016 election. 

Pallister promised to review every penny of government expenditure in his drive to balance the budget. But he also promised that he would not cut frontline services or attack the people that deliver them. Although there certainly are areas where government can cut back and not trigger significant reductions in service, for the most part, a spending cut means government does less. Vain attempts to recast "less" as "the same" or even "more" have inflicted significant brand damage on the Tories.

More importantly, if you’re going to cut funding to a program, you better have an explanation about why the people most affected don’t deserve the support. It is this last component — an articulate explanation of the rationale behind funding decisions — that has completely eluded the Pallister government.

This is largely a result of the fact that Pallister — an unabashed fiscal hawk throughout his political career — has relied too heavily on broad, unspecified and arbitrary decrees to reduce government spending. He decided that government must eliminate 15 per cent of management positions without any supporting data showing there were too many managers. He ordered that every expenditure undergo a detailed value-for-money review to determine if it is worth saving, with no effort to separate them into essential and non-essential.

This is a premier that prefers to shoot first on spending cuts and ask questions later about the impact.

In this context, it’s not hard to feel a pang of sympathy for Fielding, a smart guy who was forced to twist himself into the political equivalent of a tangled extension cord trying to explain what happened here. In fact, Fielding was really only doing what he knew the premier wanted him to do: squeeze expenditures on every possible program to find savings, regardless of whether it was a "need" program, or merely a "want" program. 

And make no mistake, there is strong argument here that the Child Care Inclusion program is more of a need than a want.

Talk to any parent of a disabled child and you will discover that they are not awash in government supports. Could this program be more efficient and effective? Absolutely. But there is no excuse for denying support to worthy families while you conduct a review.

Progressive Conservatives spent nearly 20 years in the political wilderness in part because the NDP did such a masterful job of branding them as cold-hearted hawks who cared little about helping the most vulnerable in society.

A lot of that was pure hyperbole, but it stuck to the Tories for a very long time.

Now that they are back in government, the Tories seem committed to breathing life back into an NDP narrative that should have been relegated to the dust-bin of political history.

It’s a risky strategy.

Breathe enough life into that narrative, and the Tories may find they are also breathing life into their political enemies. 

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.

Read full biography

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