June 17, 2019

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Take shelter in nearest pothole as Battle of Brians rages on

Opinion

There comes a moment in any prolonged war where the combatants realize that they prefer continued hostilities to peace. Premier Brian Pallister and Mayor Brian Bowman have clearly reached that moment.

Last week, Pallister fired the latest volley in an increasingly bitter war of words with Bowman by threatening to launch a provincial investigation of the city's planning department in the wake of damning stories in the Free Press showing permit inspectors engaged in questionable work practices.

Speaking to a Manitoba Chambers of Commerce breakfast crowd, Pallister said that a provincial review was the only way of getting to the bottom of the seemingly endless delays that citizens claimed they have endured to get a simple permit approved.

"They are doing a bit of an investigative study right now, and of course we'll build on the work that they're doing," he said. "But it needs to be an arm's-length exercise, I think, to work effectively."

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There comes a moment in any prolonged war where the combatants realize that they prefer continued hostilities to peace. Premier Brian Pallister and Mayor Brian Bowman have clearly reached that moment.

Last week, Pallister fired the latest volley in an increasingly bitter war of words with Bowman by threatening to launch a provincial investigation of the city's planning department in the wake of damning stories in the Free Press showing permit inspectors engaged in questionable work practices.

Speaking to a Manitoba Chambers of Commerce breakfast crowd, Pallister said that a provincial review was the only way of getting to the bottom of the seemingly endless delays that citizens claimed they have endured to get a simple permit approved.

"They are doing a bit of an investigative study right now, and of course we'll build on the work that they're doing," he said. "But it needs to be an arm's-length exercise, I think, to work effectively."

Provincial officials quietly maintained that the premier's comments were less about the gory details revealed in the Free Press stories and more about a provincewide campaign to eliminate red tape.

Pallister did mention that his independent review would be extended to look at the permit process at Manitoba Hydro, the Manitoba Fire Commissioner's Office and the broader Red River Planning District. He also left open the possibility that other municipalities and provincial bodies — really any entity that is involved in issuing a permit — would be drawn into this review.

However, this was no coincidence; Pallister willingly waded into the controversy surrounding Winnipeg planning inspectors in what appeared to be a bid to embarrass Bowman and council.

Premier Brian Pallister speaks with the media at a Chamber of Commerce event at the RBC Convention Centre last week after announcing the province is launching a review into how projects are carried out in the city.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister speaks with the media at a Chamber of Commerce event at the RBC Convention Centre last week after announcing the province is launching a review into how projects are carried out in the city.

The real kicker was that Pallister had not talked to Bowman before floating the idea of an independent investigation. The mayor and members of city council received a notification of the province's intention to proceed with a review on the same morning as Pallister appeared at the chamber breakfast.

Neither leader is currently walking on the side of the angels in this dispute.

Imposing a provincial review on city operations is, in and of itself, pretty provocative. The province is the senior level of government, and has the legal authority through the City of Winnipeg Act to do pretty much anything it wants to the city.

However, provincial governments have traditionally been very careful about interfering in the affairs of municipalities that are, like provinces, run by democratically elected officials.

Tradition seems to have no place in the battle between Pallister and Bowman.

Going back years now, the two leaders have been at each other's throats over the terms of cost-shared funding programs.

In short, the city believes the province has violated the terms of funding agreements by withholding tens of millions of much-needed money for infrastructure and other core programs, often without any advance notice. The province, in return, has portrayed the city as completely lacking any capacity to control its own costs.

Although Bowman likes to portray the city as the victim, he certainly hasn't shied away from lashing out at Pallister in his own way.

Mayor Brian Bowman hasn't shied away from lashing out at the province.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Mayor Brian Bowman hasn't shied away from lashing out at the province.

There are numerous examples, but the best is Bowman's decision to send letters asking all Winnipeg Tory MLAs to lobby their own party to reverse funding cuts on infrastructure programs. The letter was widely perceived as a threat that Bowman will campaign against Tory candidates when Pallister calls an election. It would be highly unusual for any sitting mayor to actively campaign against any provincial party or candidate, but Bowman feels entitled to at least raise the possibility.

In writing the letters, Bowman is demonstrating the same kind of provocative strategy as Pallister. Both leaders seem satisfied to engage in acts of political aggression that do little more than prompt the other side to retaliate. Evidence of that can be found in the province's immediate response to Bowman's letters.

A few days after Bowman wrote to Tory MLAs, Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton informed the city it was reclassifying the Bus Rapid Transit and Waverley underpass projects and rolling them into the city's roads budget. Normally, the biggest and costliest infrastructure projects are funded through separate streams so that they do not starve municipalities of money for more mundane projects such as road repairs.

Although the full impact of this decision isn't known, city officials believe it will result in yet another massive cutback in funding for roads in future years. Even without Bowman's letter, that is a risky strategy for Pallister and his Winnipeg MLAs as he stares down a possible snap election call.

Neither leader is currently walking on the side of the angels in this dispute.

The premier is clearly offended by Bowman's temerity to even challenge provincial funding decisions.

The mayor, for his part, sees nothing but duplicity and injustice in every move the PC government makes, and appears committed to a round of angry finger-pointing when he doesn't get his way.

For the sake of the citizenry, Bowman and Pallister need to find a way to end this war of attrition. That will likely require one man to seize the moment and offer the other a genuine olive branch.

Short of that, perhaps couples counselling would be in order.

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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