WHICH way are the political and economic winds blowing in Manitoba?
Having weathered the COVID-19 storm for more than a year now — and the economic devastation that has closely followed — most Manitobans saw the clear need for the winds of change to elevate Budget 2021: stimulus spending and meaningful investments in critical infrastructure, aided by historically low interest rates, along with a rejection of austerity as a policy direction to guide the post-pandemic economic recovery.
While pandemic-related hardships have not been distributed evenly across the province, it’s fair to say that everyone is sick of this situation. Manitobans want relief and some sense of certainty in these uncertain times.
Instead, the budget tabled by Finance Minister Scott Fielding on April 7 contains a mish-mash of short-term fixes in health care, massive tax cuts, and precious little in the way of economic stimulus spending. Of more immediate concern, as the province braces for a variant-driven third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the total lack of action on issues important to the thousands of working people who keep Manitoba running every day — including paid sick days.
It is remarkable how well anti-austerity attitudes were represented in the Manitoba government’s own pre-budget consultation findings, given the often stage-managed nature of provincial public consultations, marked by carefully curated questions designed for conclusion shopping rather than real dialogue.
That such a discrepancy is discernible, even in such a flawed process, is evidence of an imbalance that cannot be reconciled in a budget ledger: a democratic deficit.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of respondents to the budget consultation survey distributed by EngageMB in January and February indicated that improving the health-care system (95 per cent), improving education and child care (85 per cent), financial support for people and businesses affected by COVID-19 (82 per cent), increasing mental-health and addictions support (81 per cent), and investing in infrastructure (78 per cent) were high or medium priorities.
Lowering taxes came in dead last among the six predetermined major budget priority areas set out at the beginning of the survey. In stark contrast to the categories above, a total of 52 per cent of survey respondents felt lowering taxes was a high to medium priority, marginally more than the 47 per cent who regarded such a move as a low priority or not a priority at all.
Despite this decidedly cool reception to the notion of cutting revenue streams during a recession, Budget 2021 contains an entire chapter devoted to tax cuts.
The EngageMB survey also revealed an indifference, at best, to balanced budgets, one of the central policy goals of this government. Only 10 per cent of respondents expressed a desire to balance the budget at all costs before 2027, a timeline that has since been revised to 2028-29. In total, 81 per cent of respondents were either comfortable with the original 2027 timeline (37 per cent) or with balancing the budget at a later stage (44 per cent).
Manitobans’ apprehension regarding balanced budgets comes from their understanding that they are balanced on a democratic deficit, on the backs of working people and the poor.
What does this tell us about the political winds in this province? One could do worse than to ask public-sector workers who have had their wages frozen by Bill 28, which was determined to be unconstitutional by Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench. Or maybe ask the tradespeople who demonstrated at the legislature, one day ahead of the budget, against changes to the apprenticeship system that will reduce the number of journeypersons on the job at a time when skilled trades are desperately needed for infrastructure projects.
Like Bob Dylan, they might respond that "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
And yet the democratic deficit continues to expand, through plans to eliminate locally elected school boards and last fall’s introduction of bills whose text was not revealed until several months later.
Budget 2021 didn’t deliver the winds of change; rather, it produced only a lot of hot air.
Saku Pinta is the new Errol Black Chair in labour issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.