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You could tell the moment the news release came out — confirming a fiscal update was going to be released — it was not the kind of news Premier Brian Pallister was looking forward to discussing.
News media were given only a few hours notice the Manitoba premier and his finance minister would be available on the afternoon of the eve of Canada Day. In political jargon, making a major announcement on a day when there is little opportunity for full media coverage is called "taking out the trash."
And take out the trash, the premier did.
After months of talking about a $5-billion deficit — a figure widely disputed by bank economists and lay-journalists with an unhealthy interest in government finances — the update pegs the new forecasted shortfall at about $2.9 billion, with a "downside" potential to reach $5 billion.
The new forecasted deficit is a combination of a $1.5-billion reduction in revenues and $1.2 billion in unbudgeted spending on COVID-19 pandemic responses.
If this forecast were to be realized, it would be nearly three times the previous record-high deficit: a $1-billion shortfall in 2011-12, in which the province suffered its most expensive spring and summer flooding in history
This is not a situation unique to Manitoba, and certainly not caused by any policies of the Pallister government; all provinces in Canada are facing the same pandemic fiscal crunch, to a lesser or greater extent.
However, what is unusual is Pallister's bid to make the deficit seem worse than it really is.
From the outset of the pandemic, the premier has clung to the worst-possible scenario for his government's finances, even when it was clear Manitoba was doing quite well, in relative terms.
The glass-half-full view is largely based on the fact Manitoba has had far fewer COVID-19 infections and fatalities than the gross majority of provinces. That has certainly saved it some money on health-care costs.
However, the province is still struggling under an array of economic restrictions that are going to keep eating into government revenues. Many businesses are still closed; thousands of Manitobans are out of work.
Still, even with all that taken into consideration, this week's fiscal update is an act of blatant fibbery — particularly in the area of government spending.
Pallister has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for programs to help businesses and individuals impacted by the pandemic, but paid out only tens of millions of dollars. Despite urgent pleas from the business community for changes to eligibility requirements, or the repurposing of the pledged funds, Pallister has left the programs largely untouched. That has created a high probability only a fraction of the money promised will actually be paid out.
And then there are the missing details.
Remarkably, there is only one, cursory mention in the Pallister government's 28-page fiscal and economic update of the Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which was designed to cushion governments from fiscal crises such as this. At the news conference Tuesday, all Fielding and Pallister would say is: "It will be used this year."
Missing was any explanation of where or how it was recorded in the update's deficit calculations.
Missing as well was any recognition of the money the province has saved through the pandemic. Such as the potentially tens of millions not spent on physicians fees (who saw patient visits drop precipitously during the early days of the pandemic) or the millions more not spent on hip, knee and cataract surgeries (suspended to focus health resources on COVID-19 cases).
Finally, there was no reference in the fiscal update of the $860 million in spending reductions Fielding unleashed in May, a portion of which was going to come from layoffs, furloughs or job sharing. In fact, the government is still trying to get civil servants to sign on for up to five days off without pay — a strategy that could well add to Fielding's original cost-cutting target.
Pallister and Fielding may be trying to imply their deficit estimate is net of all these mitigating factors. But if that were the case, then surely they could have shown everyone the math.
The absence of meaningful accounting of the fiscal reserves and cost-saving measures make this less of a genuine fiscal update and more of a piece of political theatre designed to fool Manitobans.
This is not an exceptional event for the Pallister government. Since coming to power in 2016, it has offered Manitobans statements on its finances, and the finances of the previous NDP government, that were fundamentally and deliberately flawed and mathematically untenable.
Even when confronted with the evidence of his propensity to exaggerate, misrepresent and confound, Pallister remains incorrigible.
If he had truly believed this fiscal update was an accurate accounting of the province's finances, he would have released it on a day when there could be full and complete media reporting and analysis.
Instead, it was put out with the trash — an appropriate fate for something so meaningless.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at 10:01 PM CDT: Fixes minor typo.
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