BREAKING with decades of tradition, the Pallister government is withholding detailed budget information from the public — including estimated staffing and spending levels for critical areas of the province’s pandemic response.
Detailed Health Department spending estimates that filled a 145-page book last year have been reduced to a 32-page summary this year.
Spending, staffing and program information for all other government departments have been similarly cut.
For instance, the Families Department "estimates" book shrank to 33 pages this year from 128 pages in 2020. For the Department of Education, program spending information is covered in a 35-page document, down from 109 pages last year.
The Opposition NDP decried the changes in the legislature Monday, while the finance minister claimed the government was simply following "best practices."
NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine, raising a matter of privilege in the house, argued that the lack of information provided in the estimates books this year will hamper Opposition MLAs’ ability to do their jobs.
"This government doesn’t want the public to know what they’re spending their money on — or what they’re not spending their money on," she told reporters afterward.
Included in the information hidden from the public this fiscal year are estimates of the cost to government of personal protective equipment, contact tracing and critical care in hospitals, Fontaine said. Last year, the Health Department estimates book provided two full pages of information on the operations of the Cadham Provincial Laboratory, where the bulk of the COVID-19 tests are processed.
The Health Department laid out the lab’s objectives, its main activities and its anticipated results. The public could learn that the government intended to fund the equivalent of 112.5 full-time positions at the lab and at what cost. The government laid out how many people would be technicians and how many would be managers and how much the lab budgeted for supplies. Comparative information was given for the previous year.
This year, there are no such details in the government’s estimates books, which are often referred to when the legislature enters what is known as the "estimates" process. This is where Opposition MLAs get to question cabinet ministers in a committee-like setting.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding defended the changes this year, saying that several other provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, present budget information in a similar fashion.
"We have made some changes... but it’s based on best practices," he said.
In a media scrum, Fielding was asked three times to explain who in Manitoba was calling for the change. He dodged the question each time.
Instead, he went on the attack, saying that the NDP, by raising the matter, was stalling the business of the legislature, including passage of a bill that will enable the government to pay out education-tax rebates to hundreds of thousands of Manitobans.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.